Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Misty over Mockingbird

OSF's production of "To Kill A Mockingbird" was so good. The three child actors who played Scout, Jem, and Dill were outstanding, even if Dill's voice wasn't always carefully projected. I was impressed by how well they handled the show resting on their small shoulders. They were almost always on stage, with lots of lines and actions.

The actors who played Atticus, Calpernia, and Tom Robinson were lovely, amazing, well-cast. I loved trusting them in their roles in this tried and true story. (Below: Tom Robinson and Atticus with Sheriff Tate. Calpernia not shown.)

I'm not sure what I thought of Boo Radley's actor, but the character of Boo Radley is set up so perfectly in the story, climaxing with such perfection, that perhaps anyone could've played him and tugged so fully at my heart. Which is what happened last night.

I tried to tell Dane and Aubrey about the story on our walk to school today. I described the setting, the characters, the racial tension. I tried to tell them how it's about doing the right thing even if people hate you or threaten you, and how it's about understanding who you are in the world -- and I didn't even get to the subplot of Boo Radley. I think the best way to give them all that stuff is to just dive into the book with them.

I told them that if they're interested, I'd read it out loud with them this summer. I read it to myself in 7th grade. They'll only be entering 4th and 5th, but this is a different world, and they're different kids. If they're interested, I'll walk alongside them.

I think Atticus might do that, too.


This is interesting: After I wrote the above thoughts, I found a review published in today's Ashland Tidings about last night's performance. So, before you read it, let me add three more thoughts I had that I didn't articulate above:

1 - I thought the courtroom scene was long. Mr. Ewell, was played by a deaf man. I've seen this actor in other shows and have adored his presence. In the courtroom, though, to have his daughter Mayella have to sign everything to him and interpret everything was cumbersome. I felt like it slowed the pace too much. I told Mick this morning that I probably wasn't tolerant enough, that I'm not very p.c. or evolved -- but it slowed the story too much for me. And it really didn't make sense when his testimony said he heard Mayella screaming. Huh?

2 - I thought the simple stagework was spot on. I focused on the acting and words.

3 - I thought the narration at the end of the play seemed trite and cliche. I told Mick I wanted to re-read Harper Lee's book ending, because I thought the play's ending had the wrong tone and didn't seem right.

So, given my three opinions here and my many opinions in the first section, read the following and see how our reviews compare. That writer's the professional reviewer, and I don't claim to be an expert, but we have some obvious differences of opinion (and some surprising similarities).

 Posted: 2:00 AM March 02, 2011

I am a bit at a loss as to why OSF chose to present this theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee's iconic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Yes, it examines the themes of truth, justice and compassion and is a good counterbalance to "Measure for Measure." But, unfortunately, the playwright, Christopher Sergel, has not given us a very well-written play.

There is always a danger when the playwright, the director, the actors and the audience are in awe of the material. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is mythic in American literature and culture and an adaptor of Harper Lee's iconic 1960 novel does so at his peril.

This production is directed by Marion McClinton, an award-winning director new to OSF this season. His artistic conception is flawless and he really does make the best of this weak adaptation. I look forward to seeing what he can do with material worthy of his skill.

Sergel's script consists of well-known anecdotes from the novel strung together by narration that quotes verbatim great swaths of Harper Lee's prose. Neither the characters nor the action propel the story. It is painstakingly explained to us by the adult Jean Louise Finch (Scout), played by Festival veteran Dee Maaske as she meanders around the stage while the actors fill in her narration with little bits of dialogue.

To be sure, Mark Murphey does a smooth job as Atticus Finch. With his unruly forelock and wire-rimmed glasses, Murphey evokes the look and the spirit of Gregory Peck from the movie version. But this play never allows him to truly come alive as Atticus. He says all the right things, has all the right moves and is a predictable two-dimensional figure.

The same can be said for Isabell Monk O'Connor playing the housekeeper/nanny Calpurnia. She does a fine workmanlike job with a stereotyped role.

Unfortunately, the children playing the key roles of Scout (Kaya Van Dyke), her brother Jem (Braden Day) and their friend Dill (Leo Pierotti) are merely adequate. They avoid being too cute and remember their lines — even if they don't project them very well. A lot of their key banter about the elusive Boo Radley is completely lost to the audience.

If the rest of "To Kill a Mockingbird" was as good as its courtroom scene, it would be a powerful piece of theater, indeed. Michael Hume's dry, no-nonsense Judge Taylor, Howie Seago as Bob Ewell with his inexpressible rage against Finch, Susannah Flood as his diffident daughter and Peter Macon as the falsely accused Tom Robinson light up the stage. It is the only time that actual dramatic events drive the play.

It's been said about badly written material that sometimes you come out of the theater humming the scenery. This is the case with "To Kill a Mockingbird." Designer David Gallo has given us a stark proscenium arch with marvelous projections (courtesy of Lynn Jeffries) and spare props to evoke the small-town Southern milieu. Likewise, Deborah M. Dryden's costumes, Dawn Chiang's spectacular lighting and original music by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn take this production above and beyond its flaws.

Sergel was the president of Dramatic Publishing from 1970 to his death in 1993. It's a company known for publishing adaptations of classics from other mediums and licensing them to community theaters and schools. It is telling that he wrote this adaptation in 1970 and it wasn't produced by any theater until 1990. It is my guess that Dramatic Publishing has the rights to the Harper Lee novel and there are no other adaptations out there. Pity.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" runs through July 8 in the Bowmer Theatre.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at


Annie said...

My sweet Carolyn just read "To Kill a Mockingbird." She loved it.

anjie said...

Oh, I love that Carolyn's read it! If you check these comments again: Did Carolyn read it independently, or in class? I'm wondering if you talked over parts of it with her...

Butter Side Down said...

Great review Netty - I just left my thoughts on facebook - I think, for me, the theatrical experience was grand for me on this one because of WHO I shared it with! Read this book to your lovely and wonderful children this summer!!! They will enjoy it beyond belief :)