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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

multi-hued

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

Southern

summer’s day.

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

performance

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

adventuresome

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

believable.

White-haired and lanky in his cream linen suit and wire-rimmed

spectacles,

he’s Southern soft and a bit of a dandy. Perennially taken by

surprise,

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

conscience."

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

re-visits

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

portrayal

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

landscape.

Harper Lee’s finely honed tale is well worth re-visiting.

— Nicole Plett

To Kill a Mockingbird, George Street Playhouse,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. Plays

to February 28.


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