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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

To Kill a Mockingbird
Theatre Calgary

To Kill a Mockingbird
R. H. Thompson (center), Brooke Johnson (background), Jenise Jarrell and Edwin Curr
There is often a danger, when adapting well-known and beloved pieces of literature or film to the stage, that the end result, no matter how professionally done, will simply not be able to meet the expectations of the audience. In the case of Harper Lee's fabulous, heart-warming, and nostalgic masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird, this potential problem is deepened, as there are already two well-known and beloved versions of the work that have been around for fifty years; first of all, there is Harper Lee's original novel, a piece of work so finely crafted that with each successive reading, there appear new and brilliant insights, discoveries, and realizations. As if that weren't enough, there is also the film version of the novel, which appeared two years after its original publication, and as such has been around almost as long. There are few people who can imagine anyone other than Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch, or Mary Badham in a brilliant performance as the main character and narrator Jean Louise (Scout) Finch. That is why Christopher Sergel's dramatization of the novel must be lauded for its bravery, as should Theatre Calgary for adding the play to their 2011-2012 season. In any form, To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful, moving experience, and the negatives in this particular production are far outshone by the positives.

The main problems with this production are mostly related to the script itself. The basics of Lee's original story remain; the play takes place in 1935 in the sleepy southern town of Maycomb, Alabama. The story's central character, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, acts as narrator; it is through Scout's eyes that we experience the events of the story, and in this version Sergel allows us to see the adult Scout, who narrates and relives the events of the story to great effect. Scout spends her days playing with older brother Jem and quirky next door neighbour Dill, while avoiding any entanglements with the Finch family's cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia. And of course, throughout the course of the play Scout grows to admire and revere her father, Atticus Finch, a paragon of moral virtue who stands up to the entire town and does his best to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the daughter of the town's most despicable citizen, Bob Ewell. These are the basics that comprise the novel, and the film as well, and while many characters and situations in the novel are here excised, the ones Sergel chose to keep are powerful, illuminating, and necessary to get Lee's main message across ... at least they should be.

This is where problems with the script begin. In Sergel's adaptation, many key events happen without any real dramatic build or tension, especially in the first act, which is almost entirely exposition (this is by necessity; much like the novel, the play must first establish everyone's role in the community of Maycomb, Alabama, so that we as the audience can truly understand the impact of the events in the second act). The script is fragmented into many 'vignettes' that are intended to reveal to the audience what life is like for these characters. The problem is that these vignettes pass by in such quick succession that the audience is rarely given a moment to ruminate on what it has just learned, thus robbing each vignette of its intended importance. Scenes that are built up skillfully in the novel over the course of a chapter here come and go so quickly that no lessons are truly absorbed. The infamous 'mad dog' scene, wherein Atticus reveals to his stunned children that he is a dead-shot with a rifle, has little effect because we haven't really been shown that the children didn't know this about Atticus. Similarly, a powerful moment when Dill re-appears after running away from his mother in order to stay with the Finches is introduced so weakly that the central message of Dill's loneliness and need for the Finch family's unique warmth and affection is again glazed over in a flurry of frenetic exposition. This is all in the first act. The second act is much better; the pace slows down and we are able to absorb the horrific Tom Robinson trial proceedings and their importance along with the children. The final climactic scene between the children, Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley is intense and well-structured.

I am happy to report that, once again, Theatre Calgary has assembled a brilliant cast of talented actors and technicians to create a truly remarkable evening in the theatre. The cast is one of the strongest ensembles I have yet seen.

There are not enough words of praise for Brooke Johnson's portrayal of the adult Jean-Louise Finch. Johnson's Jean-Louise perfectly captures the ironic wit of Lee's narrative. Johnson walks the stage, watching the proceedings with a perfect combination of nostalgia for the times past and a not-quite-cynical adult take on the actions of her younger self and of the townspeople she knew and loved. In one of the evening's first chill-inducing moments, Johnson watches as young Scout runs gaily past her. Johnson lets out a spine-tingling laugh of joy and longing: joy at remembering the innocence of childhood, and longing to return to that state of innocence. Her presence and narration is enthralling. Johnson is also incredibly effective in the play's darker second half; as she relives the pain of the Tom Robinson trial, relives the pain of watching Atticus lose the fight to save Tom from the racist townspeople, Johnson also infuses an understanding of the proceedings and a pride in the accomplishments of her father that only an adult Scout would be expected to understand. Her performance is nothing short of remarkable.

In the pivotal roles of the three children, I am pleased to say that Calgary has excellent young actors ready to take the stage by force. Playing the central character of Scout Finch is grade six student Jenise Jarrell. Jarrell's Scout is a feisty tomboy ready to take a swing at anyone who says or does anything that might injure her young pride. Jarrell's most powerful scenes are the ones when she's alone with Atticus on the porch swing contemplating and learning from the events of the day. Jarrell has a wonderful command of character and is already, at a very young age, aware of the importance of even the simplest facial expressions. The audience can visibly witness Scout growing and learning from each new experience. Likewise, grade nine student Edwin Curr is delightful in the role of Jem Finch, Scout's older brother, best friend, and almost constant companion. He is the quintessential older brother, effectively portraying simultaneous irritation with and protectiveness of Scout. Curr looks like he was dragged straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This is exactly the quality needed in Jem, whose innocence and idealistic view of the world is damaged almost beyond repair when he witnesses the people he grew up with and around resort to the basest human emotions of racism and hatred. Curr's reaction to the events of the trial is heart-breaking. The trio of young professionals is completed by Marcus Trummer. Trummer is already an old-hand in the Calgary theatre scene, having charmed his way into the hearts of theatregoers in last year's Alberta Theatre Project's production of Seussical The Musical. Trummer here portrays Dill, Scout and Jem's quirky little friend who needs love and affection and only gets what he needs from the Finch family. Trummer perfectly balances the line between precocious and precious. One of the evening's priceless and most enjoyable moments belongs to Trummer when he explains how he escaped from imprisonment in his basement to get to Maycomb. I was grinning about Trummer's delivery as I left the theatre.

It goes without saying that, problems with the script aside, the success of any production of To Kill A Mockingbird rests heavily on Atticus Finch's shoulders. Happily, R. H. Thompson is as wonderful in this role as his highly regarded predecessor, Gregory Peck himself. Thompson is no stranger to Canadian audiences, having appeared on several Canadian Broadcasting Corporation shows (most notably as Jasper Dale in the beloved Anne of Green Gables spinoff series, Road To Avonlea). Thompson's Finch is slightly dowdier than Peck's, and that's just fine. Thompson brings to the role a world-weary humour, along with a sense of such quiet and calming dignity that every time he speaks, there seems to be a hush in the entire theatre. The most magical thing about Thompson's performance, it seems to me, is how he manages to make us grow along with the children in our estimation of his ability. Early in the story, the children see him as a weak man, and an embarrassment because of his advanced age. The first time he appears, he seems to be just that: weak and ineffectual. But then Thompson speaks, and we realize that Atticus is a man of great inner strength and character. Thompson's portrayal is, simply put, beautiful.

The direction by Dennis Garnhum is fluid and energetic and, despite the aforementioned problems with the script, the show never feels rushed or draggy. Garnhum establishes a steady pace. One of the most touching moments of the evening comes in the denouement, when the adult Jean-Louise sits listening to Atticus read a story to Scout and the injured Jem; As Scout snuggles up to Atticus and gazes sleepily and lovingly at his face, the adult Jean-Louise also joins the tableau. It is a nostalgic and stunning moment, capturing the essence of what it means to be an adult and to finally understand just how much our parents meant to us, but knowing that we can never have those wonderful, warm, family moments back. It is an image that captures the true essence of the novel.

To Kill A Mockingbird runs through November 6th, 2011, at Theatre Calgary, 220 - 9th Ave. S.E. Calgary, AB. For tickets, phone 1-403-294-7447 or visit their website at www.theatrecalgary.com.


Photo: Trudie Lee

--Gavin Logan



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