BWW Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Stratford Festival is Captivating and Thought Provoking
Each season at the Stratford Festival, there is a production that is geared to children or youth and is put on by Schulich Children's/Youth Plays. This season, that production is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Based on the novel by Harper Lee and dramatized by Christopher Sergel, this play is likely advertised as being geared towards both youth and adults because the book is so commonly read at the high school level, and also because it explores the perspective of children. The material and the issues dealt with are hard ones--for both young people and adults. this is what made the novel so important when it was published, and what makes this play important today. The powerful story is matched by powerful performances by all involved. This is a play that will linger in your mind long past the final bows.
A lot can be said for watching something that is supposed to be historical and identifying ugliness in human nature that still exists today. A lot can also be said for the sense of hope (despite unbearable despair) that is embedded in this story, and for the reminder that children are the ones who bring that hope. This poignant production, taking place on the Festival Theatre Stage, is full of hope and despair, hate and love, injustice and honour and some incredible performances. It will make you think and it will make you feel.
The play is a story told by Jean Louise 'Scout' Finch (Clara Poppy Kushnir), a young girl living in the fictitious town of Maycomb Alabama in the 1930's. Scout's observations of the people and events around her act as the lens through which the audience watches this story play out. The audience is not just seeing the world through young Scout's eyes though. The play is narrated by an adult version of Scout (Irene Poole). This is a very effective way to remind the audience that this play is not simply about a moment in time, it is about how these moments shape us as human beings, and how these issues have not been resolved. They continue to exist in the future. In one scene, the invisible older version of Scout sits down beside Mayella Ewell, the young woman accusing Tom of raping her. Older Scout stares right through this woman who she knows is about to sit at the witness stand and lie. This brief but powerful moment is why the use of an older Scout as the omniscient narrator is so effective.
This production is poignant because of the story, but also because there is a clear sense of awareness in the room that the racism and injustice seen on stage are not simply pieces of fiction history. They still exist in the world today. Director, Nigel Shawn Williams immediately brings this sense of awareness to the forefront as the play begins with clips relating to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being projected on screens as the adult version of Scout stands at centre stage and takes it all in. This sense of awareness never disappears. We as an audience may be watching one story, but one simply cannot help but think of the stories of racial injustice that frequent news headlines today.
Scout might be the observer of the story, but the moral compass is her father, lawyer, Atticus Finch (Jonathan Goad). Atticus is tasked with representing Tom Robinson (Matthew G. Brown)-a black man who has been charged with raping a white woman. As Scout, her brother Jem (Jacob Skiba), and their new friend Dill (Hunter Smalley) take in the scene in the court room and slowly discover that despite Atticus' valiant efforts, and Tom being clearly innocent, justice is not always served, and in fact, in this place and time, it is rarely served for marginalized individuals. This is a worldview-shaping life lesson for the children, but Atticus has already learned this lesson and continues to fight the brave fight anyways because that, he points out, is what courage is.
Although this novel is a Pulitzer Prize winning classic, and the play is gripping from beginning to end, there is some controversy about the fact that, as is bluntly pointed out in the program liner notes by Donna Michelle St. Bernard, the play is "concerned not with how racism ends a Black man's life, but with how a white child's psyche is affected by witnessing the events". This is quite the statement. It acknowledges the privilege that the white characters in the play and many audience members possess. This statement immediately reminded me of the powerful mantra from the Black Lives Matter Movement: "Black Lives Matter more than White Feelings". It feels upsetting to keep our focus on how the injustice against Tom affects a character like Scout. Tom's life is ruined; Tom's wife is devastated. The general consensus in today's world, when something like this happens, is that this should be the focus. This is acknowledged by the director when for a moment in this production, it is. At the climax of Tom's trial, a number of people of colour gather together and release a guttural scream. This moment briefly switches the focus specifically to the black community of Maycomb, Alabama. It is not only powerful and effective, but I would argue it is almost necessary.
Continuing with today's terminology, this play is essentially the story of Scout, Jem and Dill becoming 'woke'. Scout herself recognizes that black lives matter more than white feelings. Between the beautiful way that complex (and sometimes very simple) issues are written and spoken about, and the glorious performances by all involved, it is clear that there is still absolutely a place for this play in the world. It is just crucial that the appropriate amount of reflection goes along with it and l that more stories, written by, and featuring the perspectives of a diverse group of people are being given the space to be told as well. This is something the Stratford Festival has been striving to do in recent seasons--both in their productions and Forum events.
Part of what makes this production as powerful as it is, is the music composed by Alessandro Juliani. It blends so well with the play and seamlessly works to amplify the emotions of a scene, that you almost don't even notice it. When you take the moment to listen though, you will recognize just how beautiful and emotive it is.
The other reason this production is so powerful is the phenomenal company. Jonathan Goad, Matthew G. Brown, Irene Poole, and Clara Poppy Kushnir are particularly incredible. These performances will stick with you for weeks following the play.
Lastly, I would like to take this opportunity to make a request to future audiences. Please check and double check that your cell phones are turned off. This includes after intermission. I counted 6 cell phones ringing (some of them very briefly, but still...) during the opening day performance of this play. The play was so captivating that this was actually not nearly as distracting as one might think it would be, but even still, out of respect for the performers, for your fellow audience members, and for theatre arts as a whole, please turn off your phones!
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD continues in Repertory at the Festival Theatre until November 4th.
Photo Credit: David Hou