To Kill a Mockingbird at Barrington Stage Company

Harper Lee's Tale of Southern Racism

By: - Oct 16, 2008

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To Kill a Mockingbird
Adapted by Christopher Sergei
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Julianne Boyd; Scenic Design by Marion Williams; Costumes, Jacob Climer; Lighting, Scott Pinkney; Sound, Brad Berridge; Casting Pat McCorkle, CSA; Press, Kate Garst; Dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; Production stage manager, Renee Lutz; Starring: David Adkins (Atticus Finch),  Grace Sylvia (Scout), Debra Jo Rupp (Miss Maudie), Venida Evans (Calpurnia), Peggy Pharr Wilson (Miss Stephanie), Bob Lohbauer (Judge Taylor/ Cunningham), Bob Sorenson (Nathan/Heck), Rosalind Cramer (Ms. Dubose), Christian Meola (Jem), Ken LeRon (Reverend Sykes), John Juback (Bob Ewell), MaeEllen Scarpa (Mayella),  Ross Kane Oparowski (Dill), Lou Sumrall (Mr. Glimer/ Boo Radley), Jerome Spartling (Tom Robinson)
Barrington Stage Company, Mainstage, October 8 -26.

    Although mid week, off season, during a time of dismal economic news, there was a small house for "To Kill a Mockingbird" at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, it was most encouraging to note several groups of students in the audience. The 1960 novel of racism set in  Maycomb, Alabama in 1936 won a Pulitzer Prize and has become standard reading in American schools. The 1962 film based on the novel won four Academy Awards including Best Actor for one of the most memorable roles of Gregory Peck.

                   Julianne Boyd, the artistic director of the ambitious Barrington Stage Company, has created a perfect and stunning production of an enduring classic. From a superb cast, to a fascinating set, dominated by an enormous central tree dripping with Spanish Moss, by Marion Williams, and every detail of the production this is a flawless presentation. It is just not possible to do a better job of staging a classic of  American literature/ film/ theatre. Lee's book has sold some 30 million copies.

              While the issues of racism explored in this play have hardly subsided from this tale set in the Deep South in the middle of the Great Depression, as a work of theatre and art, it is largely a period piece. The contrasts of good and evil, black and white, are too finely chiseled and one dimensional. As a result the characters risk becoming cartoons and stereotypes. The plot is too inflexible to be convincingly effective for a contemporary audience.

                 All of the African Americans in this play, called Negroes by the altruistic, attorney Atticus Finch (David Adkins), but "Niggers" by the small minded locals in a sleepy Southern town, are patient, church going, God Fearing and innocent. Their accusers and tormentors are bigoted, lying, ignorant "White Trash." In this implausible dichotomy all of the Negroes are righteous and innocent while most of the whites are hateful and dim witted. In a too obvious visual metaphor the honest country lawyer, Atticus, is a man clothed in the white suit of moral purity and indignation.

                While all of the actors present their roles with efficient perfection the plot and inevitable outcome are so skewed and predictable that there is never the possibility for character flaw, reversal, and dramatic tension that are essential to sustain a great work of art. While Harper Lee may well have captured the flavor and memory of her own childhood growing up in the context of Southern Racism- reflected in the autobiographical character of the adolescent Scout (Grace Sylvia)- she did not endow the tale with the nuance and dimension necessary to endure the test of time.

                      This is not to say that we have, in any sense, moved beyond the racism that Lee presents. Far from it.  We have moved forward and racial isssues are far more complex almost a half century since the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s,  which contrasted the non violence of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the militancy of Malcolm X.  The setting of this play predates and is not informed by these later developments. Lee's novel created a time capsule of American social and political culture. As such it is a useful and finely drawn portrait.

                   Much of the power of the 1962 film was conveyed through the superb and sensitive performance of Gregory Peck. He was able to create the prefect balance of a small town lawyer, facing impossible odds, with the courage to face up to peer pressure and death threats, while pursing a mock trial with a predetermined outcome. In this production David Adkins has more than fulfilled expectations for that most demanding role.

              Adkins is most compelling in conveying the humanistic determination to do the right thing in defending a clearly innocent man, Tom Robinson (Jerome Spratling) and serve as a role model to his children Scout and Jem (Christian Meola).

                    Particularly in the first act too much of the focus is on the coming of age of Scout and Jem who are joined by a third juvenile Dill (Ross Kane Oparowski). While the three children are gifted actors, and have been well directed by Boyd, the plot development is strained and  tedious. It is only during the eventual courtroom scenes and their tense confrontations that the play comes alive.

             The action sizzles when the brilliant played trashy, violent, alcoholic, Bob Ewell (John Juback) lashes out and threatens Atticus. It was as powerful, visceral and believable performance. As was the screed of confusion, fear, and hate that spewed forth from his daughter Mayella (MaeEllen Scarpa). If there was indeed a crime it entailed this lonely, needy, uneducated white girl's attempt to seduce a well mannered, helpful, innocent, married, black man. For this she was clearly beaten by her monstrous father. To cover her indiscretion he falsely accuses Tom of rape.

             Scout wants to know what rape means. It is one of the many lessons she must learn about coming of age in a small town. We wonder if the innocent, idealistic children will absorb the prejudices of their elders. Apparently not as Scout, a surrogate for the author, matured and moved away. In real life, Lee became a best friend and collaborator of the brilliant, decadent, and complex author Truman Capote.

               "To Kill a Mockingbird" is really Scout/ Lee's story. In the novel she is the narrator. But in the Barrington production that role is conveyed quite nicely by the neighbor Miss Maudie in a stunningly warm performance by Debra Jo Rupp.

              While Adkins carries this production, and rightly so, there was a truly wonderful ensemble of actors. They each had stunning and compelling moments. The Reverend Sykes (Ken La Ron) was perfectly stoic and knowing, as a kind of seer. He also provided chilling musical interludes of blues harmonica. Calpurnia (Venida Evans) the servant vividly reminded me of our housekeeper, Lillian Clark, who mentored and nurtured me as a surrogate Mom. There was  towering strength in the reserved and understated performance of  Jerome Spratling as the falsely accused Tom.

                 Mostly we are grateful to Boyd and Barrington Stage for extending the theatre season. This is an effort and commitment which is echoed by Shakespeare & Company and the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Through difficult times, now more than ever, we need the life blood of art and theatre. It sustains us through the turmoil that surrounds and discourages us. This production will keep us on target until next season when Barrington will bring us the perennial classics "Carousel" by Rodgers and Hammerstein, June 17 through August 1, and the riveting drama by Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire" August 6-23, as well as, a comedy to be named later in between.

               Thanks Julianne and Barrington Stage. Gosh knows, golly darn, gee whiz, all us Hockey Moms and Joe Sixpacks needed that. You betcha.