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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Solid Stage Adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird
Revived at Shakespeare Theatre

Also see Bob's reviews of Phaedre Backwards and It Shoulda Been You

To Kill a Mockingbird
Ethan Haberfield, Emmanuelle Nadeau, Marjorie Johnson, Frankie Seratch and
Nisi Sturgis

Originally copyrighted by Christopher Sergel back around 1970 and intended for high school productions, the stage version of Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize novel To Kill a Mockingbird has proven irresistible to the producers of major regional theaters throughout the country since its first professional production (with a cast of fifty) at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 1991. Sergel tinkered with his adaptation until his death in 1993. At Paper Mill, the story was narrated by Maudie, friend and neighbor of the Finches. When the George Street Playhouse produced it in 1998, Jean-Louise Finch, the grown up Scout, had become the narrator as she is still. Its current revival at the Shakespeare Theatre marks Mockingbird's third major New Jersey production.

It is set in the mid-1930s in the midst of the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb in southern Alabama. We view it through the eyes of three children, eight year old Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill, who spends his summers with his aunt who lives next door to them. Scout and Jem are the children of the widowed, kindly and gentle, determinedly fair and idealistic lawyer Atticus Finch. During the day, they are in the care of a black woman named Calpurnia, who to them is more loving surrogate mother than family servant. One summer, Tom Robinson, an innocent young black man, is falsely accused of rape by Mayella Ewell, a pathetic young white girl whom he has befriended, and her abusive, racist father Bob Ewell. Atticus takes Tom's case and mounts a vigorous defense which arouses the emnity of much of Maycomb. Atticus saves Tom from a lynch mob which descends on the jail. The jurors are determined to convict him in disregard of clear evidence of his innocence. The children witness all this, and are drawn into the vortex of the dreadful consequences of their community's legacy of hate and injustice. Scout comes to appreciate the exceptional goodness and understated strength of character of her father. The life lessons which she learns are ones which will enrich all youngsters attending this adaptation.

Joseph Discher has directed this Mockingbird at a smooth and graceful pace which enables us to soak up the evocative poetic strains of Sergel's adaptation of the novel. There will be quite enough pulse-quickening and emotionally engaging conflict. However, it is all the more moving and believable when it flows in an unforced manner from a time, place and population in which we have become immersed.

Brent Harris hits all the right notes as Atticus. Harris portrays the larger than life, heroic figure that is Atticus without any histrionic, off-putting embellishments. Emmanuelle Nadeau delivers an unfussy, no nonsense portrayal of serious minded, intuitive and inquisitive Scout. Frankie Seratch is her more stolid, less inquisitive older brother. Ethan Haberfield is Dill, their mischievously and oddly sweet friend purportedly modeled after Harper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. Nisi Sturgis as Jean Louise Finch, the 1960s grown-up Scout narrates the play with a bittersweet gentility which sets the delicate mood which frames the adaptation.

Maureen Silliman captures neighbor Maudie Atkinson's devotion to Atticus and his children. While her feelings for Atticus are not emphasized in the play's text, Silliman gives us a sense of Maudie's romantic interest for Atticus. Marjorie Johnson does as much as could be expected with the standard issue role of Calpurnia. Jean Walker gets to be feisty as the children's nemesis: crotchety elderly neighbor Mrs. DuBois, whose pure spirit reminds us not to be casually judgmental of others. Ray Fisher plays the victimized Tom Robinson with a heartfelt fervor which is matched by Rocio Alexis Mendez in the role of his wife Helen. Jake Berger is fine as "Boo" Radley, although, as it always was and always will be, "Boo" is an exceedingly memorable creation because of the stories that we are told about him rather than by how much can be conveyed by any actor in the role.

Conan McCarty's Bob Ewell is a scary figure of pure ignorant evil who is beyond the point where the vicissitudes of his life are worthy of our consideration. Alexis Hyatt's equally chilling Mayella Ewell spews out her perjured testimony with a hatred that will brook no sympathy from either Atticus or the viewer.

The gallery of local types contributing to the richness of the production is filled out by Chase Newhart (Judge Taylor), James Michael Reilly Sheriff (Heck Tate), Eileen Glenn (Stephanie Crawford), Allan R. Walker (Reverend Sykes), Eric Rolland (Prosecuting Attorney Gilmer) and Don Meehan (both farmer Walter Cunningham and Nathan Radley).

Although it is somewhat sparse to convey a full sense of its period location, the scenic design of Anita Tripathi Easterling is attractive and playable, and transforms reasonably well from depicting the block on which the Fitch's reside to the interior of the town courthouse. The costumes of Maggie Dick are appropriately evocative.

The Harper Lee novel is one of the most popular novels of the past fifty years and continues to be widely read. An exceptionally fine 1963 award-winning motion picture version (Oscars to Horton Foote for the screenplay and Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Atticus) was very successful and remains in wide circulation today.

The early scenes, which center largely on Scout, Jem and Dill, rely heavily on dialogue which challenges the vocal limits of the child actors and the auditory acuity of the audience. However, they set the stage for the central event of the story, the trial of Tom Robinson. It is here that the stage adaptation shines as there is an intensity and sense of participation felt by a theatre audience during a well developed courtroom trial that has always eluded even the best on-screen trial depictions.

Although the characters cannot be filled in with the rich detail that they attain in Harper Lee's novel, this stage Mockingbird has more than enough humanity and poetry to transcend its stereotypical characters. On the Shakespeare Theatre stage, To Kill a Mockingbird provides a memorable and enriching theatrical experience which parents would do well to share with their school aged children.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues performances (please see web site for irregular performance schedule) through November 20, 2011, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; adapted by Christopher Sergel; directed by Joseph Discher

Cast
Jean Louise Finch....................................Nisi Sturgis
Scout Finch...............................Emmanuelle Nadeau
Maudie Atkinson.............................Maureen Silliman
Calpurnia.......................................Marjorie Johnson
Judge Taylor.....................................Chase Newhart
Heck Tate..................................James Michael Reilly
Stephanie Crawford...............................Eileen Glenn
Jem Finch.........................................Frankie Seratch
Mrs. Dubose...........................................Jean Walker
Reverend Sykes.................................Allan R. Walker
Mayella Ewell..........................................Alexis Hyatt
Bob Ewell..........................................Conan McCarty
Dill..................................................Ethan Haberfield
Nathan Radley/ Walter Cunningham.......Don Meehan
Atticus Fitch...........................................Brent Harris
Mr. Gilmer..............................................Eric Rolland
Court Clerk............................................Ben Sterling
Tom Robinson..........................................Ray Fisher
Helen Robinson........................Rocio Alexis Mendez


Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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