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Review: `To Kill a Mockingbird’
This review by Nicole Plett was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
If experience is the bubbling cauldron of the emotions,
memory is the quiet country where emotions grow and take form. The
memory play, "To Kill a Mockingbird," takes one summer in
the life of a 9-year-old girl and casts it as the catalyst for a
portrait of the inner life of the girl that once was, and the adult
she has become.
From the moment that the grown Jean-Louise Finch, better known as
Scout, steps onto the stage at George Street Playhouse, she reminds
her audience that, back when she and her brother Jem were young in
Maycomb, Alabama, "the summer’s were hotter." Suzanna Hay’s
gentle but impassioned performance helps take the adult audience back,
not only to Alabama of the 1930s, but also to our younger selves,
and our own earlier encounters with Harper Lee’s searing novel about
growing up with racism.
There are probably few who graduated from high school without reading
this 20th-century American classic; and perhaps equally few who have
read it since. More than one generation has come to know the novel
through the movie starring Gregory Peck. Christopher Sergel’s spare
adaptation of Lee’s classic work serves the novel well. Director Tom
Bullard’s strong production works on our memory at all levels, a cruel
lesson in conscience that unfolds with the syrupy sweetness of a
Sergel tells the story by twinning the reflective character of the
grown Scout with the 9-year-old child she once was, providing a sturdy
bridge into the drama. Mianna Saxton, in a strong and unaffected
as the young Scout, shares some of Hay’s lines; and their bond builds
over the course of the play. The adult Scout addresses the audience
as a narrator, yet experiences the story as a powerful memory.
Completing "Mockingbird’s" trio of children — an
little band that almost steals the show — are Athanasios Patouhas
as a thoughtful and resourceful Jem, and second-grader Charlie Saxton
as the delightfully rotund and self-important Dill, a character based
on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote.
Resisting the efforts of the child cast to steal this show however,
is Will Stutts. As the eccentric country lawyer, Atticus Finch —
a bit too old to be the father of small children, a politic misfit
in his community — Stutts masterfully makes the role his own.
Gregory Peck notwithstanding, Stutts’ Atticus is powerfully
White-haired and lanky in his cream linen suit and wire-rimmed
he’s Southern soft and a bit of a dandy. Perennially taken by
he seems to us a real man whose life is something that happens to
him, presenting challenges that he yet succeeds in meeting.
"There’s one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule," the
thoughtful Atticus tells his children, "and that’s a person’s
At the opening of Act II, Jean-Louise stands alone in the courtroom
on the morning of Tom Robinson’s trial and again invites the audience
to re-visit times past. "The trial was a gala occasion, with mules
and wagons hitched everywhere in the center of town, and picnickers
on the courthouse grass," she tells us.
It is here, also, that the contemporary audience
the ugly and familiar portrait of racism in the 1930s. As the doomed
Robinson, Anthony Jones presents an oppressed and fatalistic figure
not often encountered in today’s popular culture. Like an ever-present
ghost of the past, his characterization stands uncomfortably beside
today’s TV icons of affluent and arrogant urbanites. Jones’ grim
challenges his audience with the question of whether his anachronistic
character has truly been banished from our national landscape.
In the courtroom, Stutts builds his characterization of Atticus from
the diffuse, impractical man we first meet to a courtroom titan who
rises to the challenge of defending an unpopular client. In a forceful
closing argument, he throws the spotlight on the conditions of poverty
and ignorance that condemned innocent and guilty alike.
Michael George Owens as Bob Ewell, the aggrieved father, effectively
conjures this impoverished white man’s appalling sense of privilege,
even in the presence of the impassive Tom Robinson, whose life he
effectively ends. Janine Cogelia plays his disheveled and anxious
daughter, Mayelle, victimized at her father’s hand.
With the action contained primarily in the yard outside the Finch’s
home, Walt Spangler’s sets feature a tree so large it could only exist
in memory, and an equally oversize facade of the mysterious Radley
house. a mass of dark, weathered pine boards that span the back of
the stage like the ever-present specter of Boo Radley.
Courtroom dramas, real and imagined, abound on today’s litigious
Harper Lee’s finely honed tale is well worth re-visiting.
— Nicole Plett
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. Plays
to February 28.
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