Harper Lee’s popular and lauded 1960 novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” was lovingly adapted by Horton Foote for the 1962 film version. The film was a great success and praised, notably for Gregory Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance as Atticus, but also for the performances of the children (Mary Badham and Phillip Alford) through whose eyes and actions we get a perception of a small Alabama town in 1935.
The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey is presenting a very fine production of the popular stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel. As a child’s point of view is so essential to the story, it is worth mentioning at the top that the three very young actors assigned to key roles are giving very delightful performances. This production, under the excellent direction of Joseph Discher, works hard and succeeds in keeping the children front and center.
For those of us who cherish the novel as well as the film version, there are just enough endearing traces of Scout’s outspokenness and tomboyish behavior in Emmanuelle Nadeau’s performance, as well as a good deal of amusement to be found in the antics of her brother, Jem (Frankie Seratch), and their little misfit of a friend, Dill (Ethan Haberfield), the character based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. The play’s most effective device is having Jean Louise Finch, the adult Scout, serve as an almost constant presence/bystander who delivers the narrative thread as a memory. She is played by a luminous and ingratiating Nisi Sturgis.
The adaptation is certainly a sincere effort to bring attention to the novel’s most beguiling and fundamental virtues. At its most endearing, this growing-up story of a rambunctious little girl nicknamed Scout offers us glimpses into her feelings. She also provides numerous demonstrations of her winsome precociousness, especially in the way she idolizes her widowed father, Atticus — the town’s most respected attorney. Like the trustworthy, kind, brave, etc. scoutmaster his daughter sees in him, Brent Harris, who is making his first appearance at STNJ, is commendably honest and forthright.
This may be Scout’s story, but it is also about the social attitudes and biases that prevailed at the time among the townspeople and the farmers. Act I is largely taken up with exposition and as a build-up to the trial. The adaptation loses some dramatic traction with the plodding opining and submissions of a sweet neighbor, Miss Maude (Maureen Stillman), the busybody-ness of the sourish Miss Stephanie Crawford (Eileen Glenn), and the eccentric nastiness of the elderly and ill Mrs. Dubose (Jean Walker). It is always amazing, even in real life, how little one cares about what the neighbors think, or think they know.
The courtroom scene, in which Atticus defends a young, black farmhand (Ray Fisher) charged with raping a white girl (Alexis Hyatt), gives Harris an opportunity to shine as he expresses some strong and stirring opinions on human behavior and the course of justice.
Marjorie Johnson makes an outstanding impression as Calpurnia, the Finchs’ strictly no-nonsense black housekeeper. Conan Meehan and Alexis Hyatt succeed in giving us the chills, as vicious, vindictive, and ignorant poor white trash. The large, first-rate supporting cast includes Chase Newhart as the overly conciliatory Judge Taylor and James Michael Reilly as Sheriff Heck Tate.
The unit setting mainly depicting the Finchs’ front porch and the neighboring home of the reclusive Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley (Jake Berger) makes an impressive transition into the interior of the court house including its balcony seating reserved for the black. For those who cherish Lee’s novel, Sergel’s adaptation has its shortcomings, but under Discher’s skillful guidance, it is a mostly affecting dramatic tribute to an author who would never write another story.
The program explains Lee’s decision to never write again via this comment attributed to her by a close friend, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane, in a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
“To Kill A Mockingbird,” through Sunday, November 20, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, Madison. $40 to $55. 973-408-5600.