|Stephen Thorne & Angela Brazil in "To Kill a Mockingbird"|
(photo: Mark Turek)
Anyone attending Trinity Rep's production of its staged adaptation of Harper Lee's“To Kill a Mockingbird” might grow restless during the overly lengthy prologue of monologues and wonder whether it should have been timed and trimmed (but more about this later). Once the play itself gets going, there will be much that is comfortably familiar. Unless one has been living in a cave for the last umpteen years, she or he will already be well acquainted with this story of a rape trial in 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama. To acknowledge this shared memory and attempt to transcend it, some novel decisions were made which, depending on one's tolerance for experimentation with the beloved story in its prior book and film treatments, will either enhance or detract from one's enjoyment. Since the story has been criticized for essentially being a white person's perspective on race, Trinity Rep commendably decided to pair this production with one of “Blues for Mr. Charlie” by black playwright James Baldwin, written about the same time as Lee's novel. It's clear their hearts are decidedly in the right place, and in the end the honesty of all involved overcomes a few potentially controversial ideas in the mounting of this dramatization.
The most radical concept was to have the actors present their own personal experiences with active and passive prejudice, racial and otherwise. The basic idea was, of course, to illustrate how pervasive discrimination is in all of its forms, from misogyny to sexual orientation, and thus to establish contemporary hook-up points with the core story first published over fifty years ago. The problem was, these intensely personal biographical monologues were presented prior to the play's beginning (fine, if a bit overlong) and during the play itself (not so fine). The dramatic arc of the work suffered with these interruptions and broke down what one might call the “fifth wall”, both stepping out of character and addressing the audience directly as themselves.
The second decision about mounting the play was to employ non-traditional casting taken to a whole new sphere. Color-blind casting is a welcome idea with which audiences should by now be quite comfortable. The exception is when the ethnicity of a character is absolutely essential to a story, as it should have been here, for example in the case of a black actress playing Mayella Ewell (Alexis Green), the story's white accuser of the black defendant, Tom Robinson (David Samuel). This threatens to destroy the theatrical illusion being performed. In the same vein, the characters of the three children in the story, Jean Louise Finch or “Scout” (Angela Brazil), Jeremy Finch, “Jem” (Jude Sandy), and Charles Baker Harris, “Dill” (Mauro Hantmann) are, visually, way beyond the story's descriptions of them as ranging in age from about eight to twelve years. It simply strains credulity, especially if one knows that the actor who plays Atticus Finch (Stephen Thorne) is Brazil's husband in real life. Yet here we have one partially balding man, one black man and a married woman all valiantly trying to represent characters whom they visually contradict. Added to this is the additional decision to have the story narrated (in the style of “Our Town”) by the entire cast, rather than by its central character of Scout. Consider how much more powerful it would have been with an extraordinary child actor (as in, for example, the Broadway musical “Fun Home”).
Lastly, the decision was made to present the play in the round, which on the surface makes sense especially in the lengthy central courtroom scene. The playing space is so vast that even whispered lines have to be declaimed to be audible throughout the theater. Virtually gone is any intimacy between Atticus and Scout, such as the memorable scene side by side on their front porch glider. Despite all these obstacles, the cast consistently shines, and the message prevails. There are some clever meta touches, such as having the judge announce a recess (intermission). Under the Direction of Brian McEleney, standouts include Calpurnia (Mia Elllis), Miss Maudie Atkinson (Rachael Warren), Miss Stephanie Crawford (Rebecca Gibel), Mrs. Dubose (Ashley Mitchell) and Reverend Sykes (Samuel again), and eventually Boo Radley (Sinan Eczacibasi), who actually speaks in this version. The ensemble of Trinity Rep regulars has never been better. The creative contributions include the simple Set Design by Michael McGarty (primarily consisting of tables, desks and chairs), varied period Costume Design by Toni Spadafora, complex Lighting Design by Byron Winn and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz.
At one point a character states that, since it does no harm to us and provides us with music, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird (which the novel's “sequel”, Go Set a Watchman almost did). The same might be said about this play. It does nothing but good (with a strong moral compass) and provides us with thoughtful reinforcement, especially as the consequences of the courtroom scene devolve. It would be a sin to miss it.