Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is a great American novel, and an indispensable document in the story of our national race psychosis. Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film version, with a screenplay by Horton Foote and an iconic performance by Gregory Peck, is also a masterpiece, and, I suspect, a source of goodness in the world: What sentient being could watch Peck as Atticus Finch and not want to be a righteous person him- or herself? Any new version of the story, therefore, has a lot to live up to, and we shouldn’t be too surprised if it falls short in some respects. The bar, in this case, has been set in the stratosphere.
Well, as it turns out, the stage version is not up to the level of book or film. Christoper Sergel’s adaptation does have one great virtue — its courtroom scenes are beautifully rendered — but mostly this version, currently playing at Stageworks, is too little, too much, or, most often, too quick. It’s too little atmosphere: we never really get the sense of the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, with its slow Southern rhythms and its simmering Jim Crow hostilities. It’s too much exposition in the early scenes, during which we’re told everything all at once, as if we didn’t have the patience to let the story unfold naturally. And it’s too quick with most of the pre- and post-trial events, from Finch’s one-man stand at the county jail to the vindictive attack on his two children — scenes that need time if they’re to have the right emotional impact. Fortunately, Sergel gives the trial segments more attention than any others, so for a while we do get swept up in Finch’s attempt to convince a white jury that his black client, Tom Robinson, has been falsely accused of rape. But once the trial ends, the story moves back into overdrive, and we’re rushed to the conclusion. Then this Mockingbird is over before you can say Boo Radley.
In the 13-actor cast, there are three outstanding performances. Jim Wicker is a persuasive, affecting Atticus Finch, deliberate in judgment, peaceable and a little melancholy, loving his children without mawkishness, and conscious that truth is usually the first casualty when race is the issue. As Mayella Ewell, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of raping her, Amanda Welch is just about perfect: nervous, frightened, repeatedly near tears, clearly harboring many secrets, and daring the white jurors to disbelieve her. And as Amanda’s father Bob Ewell, Peter Nason is startlingly hateful, ignorant and angry. When these three actors are at center stage, this Mockingbird is so riveting, you can just about forget all the strengths of book and film. And there are some fine performances besides these. Kibwe Dorsey is an interesting, hyper-emotional Tom Robinson, oscillating, on the stand, between terror and bitterness. Natalie Sullivan is warm and winning as narrator/townswoman Miss Maudie, and Brenda Gibbs is nicely comic as the opinionated Miss Stephanie.
And then there are the child actors: Kristen Powell as Scout, Lucas Pasquier as Jem, and Jack Dunham as Dill. What can I say that won’t get me thrown out of town? They’re okay, they do the job, and Powell especially has some charming moments. But do I believe in their reality as I do in Wicker, Welch and Nason’s? Not for a minute. Now please excuse me, while I book the first Amtrak to Nova Scotia.
Anyway, Frank Chavez’s multi-level set is imposing enough, but, with its tall timbers and abstract resonance, it fails to suggest small-town Maycomb in the Depression years. Chavez’s costumes, on the other hand, are mostly right for this rural hamlet, and Karla Hartley’s lighting is, as usual, eloquent. Anna Brennen’s direction is efficient — almost too efficient in the first and last scenes. Actor Wicker is listed as assistant director.
In sum: this Mockingbird has its moments. See it and be reminded of Ms. Harper Lee’s long-lived gift to the nation.