Regional Reviews: St. Louis
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Big Read, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, aims to bring communities together and encourage reading by organizing a series of events around a single book. This year in St. Louis that book is Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." As part of the Big Read, Metro Theater Company and the Edison Theatre are producing a series of performances of Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation of Lee's novel.
Sergel specialized in adapting narrative literature for the stage: for Dramatic Publishing (a family business) he adapted everything from Black Elk Speaks to Up the Down Staircase. You might say he was the Steven Dietz of his day.
Judging by To Kill a Mockingbird, Sergel knew his business, and would-be playwrights could learn a thing or two about exposition by studying the script. This extremely efficient adaption opens with a tableau of small-town Alabama life in 1935. The first character to speak is Jean Louise Finch (Scout as an adult, played by Stephanie Strohman) who serves as a narrator of and commentator on the events enacted on the stage. The other main characters are quickly introduced with a short scene which illustrates their salient characteristic (most have only one) as they exchange meaningful remarks or make pithy speeches (the meaning of the book's title is revealed in one of the first exchanges, and repeated again at the play's conclusion).
Key incidents from the novel are enacted onstage, including Mr. Cunningham paying his bill with farm produce, Atticus killing the rapid dog, and the standoff at the courthouse. All in all, Sergel's adaptation is a marvel of narrative efficiency equal to the opening chorus in Li'l Abner or Peter Stone's book for 1776. But Sergel seems impatient to get to the trial of Tom Robinson, which forms the centerpiece of the play: it's the longest piece of action unbroken by narration and includes the only long speech of the play, Atticus Finch's address to the jury. This is a logical course, not only because the trial is the main dramatic event of the novel, but also because it presents an uncomplicated case of injustice which even a child can understand.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent introduction to the theatre for older children, many of whom will have read the book in school (in my day, it was assigned in 7th grade); the performance I attended included many children who responded appreciatively to this production. Adults may be less charmed: the rapid pace of events at the expense of character development and emotional impact sometimes makes it feel like a CliffsNotes version of the novel.
However, the Metro Theater/Edison production gives Sergel's play every chance to succeed: director Carol North keeps the pace moving and the large number of characters are well arranged on stage. All the roles are well-cast; particular standouts include Stephanie Strohman as the adult Scout; Nicholas Kryah as Atticus Finch; Berklea Going as Scout (alternating with Emily Jackoway); and Parker Donovan as Dill (alternating with Drew Redington), a character based on Truman Capote. Dunsi Dai's efficient set at first presents the porches of four shotgun houses; two rotate to create the courtroom. Imaginative lighting by John Wylie, period costumes by Lou Bird (which clarify the class relationships among the white characters, something not emphasized in this adaptation) and sound design by Amanda Bruggeman (including onstage musician Sandy Weltman) all combine to make this a satisfying production of a childhood favorite.
To Kill a Mockingbird will run at the Edison Theatre through January 18, 2008. Ticket information is available from www.edisontheatre.wustl.edu and 314-935-6543. Further information about The Big Read is available from bigread.wustl.edu.