Arlington — Theatre Arlington’s thoughtful and heart-tugging production of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has the one element no stage adaptation of this novel can do without: an Atticus Finch—veteran actor and former TA executive producer Todd Hart—who passes the story’s “Dad” test with flying colors. To wit: Would you like this Atticus Finch to be your imaginary father?
Yes, yes, we would.
Any Mockingbird, of course, runs up against our collective memory, not so much of the novel itself (though that’s in the mix, too) but of Gregory Peck’s unmatched performance as Atticus in the 1962 film version—a fatherly image imprinted on several generations’ minds and hearts. But Hart’s quietly humane and humorous Mr. Finch, wised-up to the careless antics and genuine moral struggles of his children and compassionately aware of the less-than-perfect lives of the townspeople around him, is as truthful and nuanced as anything seen on Theatre Arlington’s stage in some time.
Paired with him in this 1991 stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel is a grown-up Scout who comments on the remembered events—centered on Atticus’ defense of a black husband and father unjustly accused of a raping a young white woman. Played by Sara Ragsdale with gentle gravity, the adult Jean Louise becomes a living framework for the story. Looking through her eyes and mind, we experience emotions at once nostalgic and troubled—as though remembering is not enough and there yet remains, as she says, “something to do.”
Beyond these two fine portrayals, director Michael Serrecchia draws several other remarkable performances from a cast that includes both newcomers and longtime local favorites. Mark Oristano is outstanding as county sheriff Heck Tate, a decent man in a hard job. An aura of violence surrounds Jared Culpepper’s smirking and rage-filled Bob Ewell, the father of the woman in the case—and Cayley Nicole Davis makes a timid but vengeful Mayella Ewell.
Jermaine Johnson is tragic and utterly believable as the defendant Tom Robinson, his good-hearted life undone by the warped rules of the segregated world around him. Patricia E. Hill is loud but loving as the Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia, with Rema Martinez warm and perceptive as the children’s neighbor Miss Maudie. Delmar Dolbier mixes legal eagle and small-town humorist as Judge Taylor; and DR Mann Hanson is compelling as Walter Cunningham, a hardscrabble farmer who rediscovers his humanity at the head of a lynch mob.
The youngest performers, while at times a bit hard to hear, have a fresh and natural air that argues both talent and good direction. Britton Cooper (Jem Finch) and Austin Brown (Dill) come across as real and unusually clear-eyed boys who watch and judge the adults around them. And little Madilyn Perry (seen in Casa Mañana’s The Sound of Music and Les Misérables) makes an engaging Scout, with her messy braids and worn overalls (the period costumes by Michael Robinson hit every right note) and no-filter conversational skills. This little girl has questions on questions—and isn’t a bit afraid to ask them. It’s hard to see Scout ever fitting in with this small town’s plans for her (aka, cotillion and white gloves). No wonder the children’s nasty neighbor Mrs. Dubose, played with cane-shaking ferocity by Dorothy Lynn Brooks, predicts Scout is heading for a trashy life. (Not trashy, just different: As Harper Lee’s almost-avatar in the story, we know “Scout” had to get far away from home—New York City, in fact—to write this story.)
Anthony Curtis’ set design effectively anchors us in time and place (the Depression-era Deep South), with the Finch and Radley houses flanking the stage and neighbors’ doors set on a rise at center. For the trial scene, this townscape morphs seamlessly into a courtroom, with the Finch’s two-story porches re-purposed as packed spectator galleries. (As the trial begins, the audience realizes with a sudden shock that we are the jury in this clever configuration.) Kyle Harris’ lighting evokes the bright days and scary twilights of childhood, and Melanie Mason’s soundscape of mockingbirds and bluegrass tunes is entirely in tune.
It feels significant that the play doesn’t use a different set for the courtroom scene. This trial is of, by and for the people of Macomb, held in a kind of town square that visually and emotionally connects the community’s everyday life and the justice (or injustice) it seeks. The courtroom action plays out with the streets, homes and citizens of the community in full view.
It will be interesting to see how writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Steve Jobs), picked to create a new adaptation of Mockingbird for a Broadway run in the next year or so, will handle this much-honored material. For now, though, TA’s production of Serkel’s version (done annually in Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Alabama) is a timely reminder of just how much Harper Lee’s story shaped and reflected the American conversation on race—and how much (as the grown-up Jean Louise seems to know) we have left to do.