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San Francisco by Richard Connema

To Kill a Mockingbird at Willows Theater

Also see Richard's review of Visiting Mr. Green


The Willows Theatre Company opened their 2002 season on January 28 with a presentation of Christopher Sergels's To Kill a Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee's powerful Pulitzer Prize winning 1961 novel. The novel has become a classic read for millions of people. It was made into a major motion picture in 1962, starring Gregory Peck, for which he won an Academy Award for his performance as the southern attorney. The novel was transferred to the stage by Christopher Sergel in 1997. ...Mockingbird made its first appearance on stage in the UK with Richard Johnson starring as the attorney Atticus Finch. Since then many regional companies in this country have staged the powerful play.

To Kill the Mockingbird is a faithful reproduction of Ms. Lee's novel. She describes the play as "a love story, pure and simple": love for the South, a father's love for his children and their love for him. The story is about dignity, tolerance and the difficulties of growing up in a rural community in Alabama during the depression year of 1935. It is told through the eyes of Scout, the tomboyish daughter of Atticus. She is fascinated with all of the people in this small town and she is full of questions to be asked of her widower father. She wonders why the black folks have a special feeling for her father and why her white friends are hostile to her. Why is her father defending a black man who was wrongfully accused for raping a white woman? She cannot understand why Atticus would take such a case. The father replies "if I don't, I couldn't hold my head up." He uses a simile about a mockingbird. He tells her mockingbirds don't eat anyone's garden, nor do they do any other harm and that to kill one would be an outright sin.

The racial tensions have polarized the town and most white folks are against Atticus in this gothic melodrama. The first act is mostly about the love between the father and his two small children, Scout and Jem. The second takes up with the actual trial itself with the Scout and Jem and their friend Charles watching the trial from the "color segregated balcony" in the courtroom. After watching the trial, the children gain a new respect for Atticus.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful and well knit production and the drama unfolds seamlessly. There is also a narrator on the order of Our Town in the guise of a widow who lives next door to the Finches. The cast is of high quality Bay Area actors with Julian Lopez-Morillas taking the key role of Atticus Finch. He plays the role of the enigmatic lawyer to perfection. Where Gregory Peck played the attorney with slump-shouldered rectitude, Mr. Morillas plays him as a proud and dignified straight-shouldered man.

All three children actors are highly professional with Emily Anne Radosevich playing the inquisitive Scout. Austen Stranaham plays her older brother Jem as a typical young lad growing up in the south. He is excellent in the role and he has a good clear professional voice. The real charmer is Darren Barrere who plays 5 year old Charles Baker Harris. He reminds me of a 5 year old Truman Copote and his first lines in the play are "I'm Charles Baker Harris. I can read."

Deborah Black plays the next door neighbor and the narrator. She is outstanding in the role of a white woman who is sympathetic to Atticus' plight. Tim Hendrixson is properly snide, villainous "white trash" who wrongfully accuses the black man of raping his 19 year old daughter played superbly by Ginny Wehrmeister. Her acting while on the stand is beautifully performed. Algin Ford has little to do as the accused black man.

The two sets by Jean-Francois Revon are first rate. The first act features four separate houses with Spanish moss hanging everywhere around the stage. Lighting by Chris Guptill is brilliantly done. The court room scene has been carefully constructed with the audience as the members of the jury. The set, the lighting, and the costumes by Loran Watkins faithfully recreate a bygone South. Under the expert director of Richard Elliott this finally honed and fragile tale comes to enchanting life on the Willows stage.

To Kill a Mockingbird plays through March 3 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd. Concord, Ca. Tickets are $30, with discounted prices of $25 for seniors and $20 for students. Call (925)798-1300 for tickets or visit www.Willowstheatre.org The next production will be Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms opening March 18 and running through April 21.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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