Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 16, 2010

Script keeps 'Mockingbird' from singing

Acting is solid, but a flawed Harper Lee adaptation makes TheatreWorks show uneven

by Jeanie K. Smith

"To Kill A Mockingbird," Harper Lee's only novel, is arguably one of the most important works of American literature to come out of the 20th century. It captures an era, a culture and an aspect of the nation's psyche that still resonates for modern readers.

Calling for a higher sense of justice and decency, it appeals to our better natures, and to our desire for progress away from the small-mindedness of an earlier age. We recognize that ignorance and injustice still live among us, but the book has a hopeful, healing message — and therein lies some of its success, as it encourages us to rise to our best.

A famous movie adaptation (screenplay by Horton Foote) has been followed by several stage adaptations by Christopher Sergel, who kept revising his own work over two decades. TheatreWorks has chosen an early Sergel version for its current production celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book's publication. The show is uneven, despite the talent on stage, so the problems seem to rest primarily with the adaptation.

If you are familiar with the story of small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (Anthony Newfield) and his precocious children Scout (Sierra Stephens) and Jem (Eric Colvin), you know he is called upon to defend a young black man, Tom Robinson (Philipe D. Preston), against a false charge of raping and beating a poor, ignorant young white woman (Blythe Foster). We see the events unfold through the eyes of young Scout, Finch's tomboy daughter, as she begins to view the world with more maturity and understanding, learning to see her father with fresh insight.

Sergel wrote his adaptations with schools in mind, as both audience and producers, and this shows in the script, especially this early version. The many subplots found in the book are markedly condensed. For example, the story of eccentric neighbor Boo Radley (Howard Swain) is reduced almost to nothing. In contrast, the subplot of the elderly racist neighbor, Mrs. Dubose (Phoebe Moyer), receives more emphasis as a means of driving home the play's moral message.

The production enlists the audience as the town and as jury and spectators in the courtroom. It's a device that works for the court scenes, but is distracting when townspeople directly address the audience in dialogue.

What I missed most from this version was Scout's first-person narrative, her adult reminiscing about those fateful days and months that she now recognizes as the forge of her own sense of justice and ethics. In a later version, Sergel added the adult Scout and some of the book's lyrical narrative, which adds a philosophical tone and skews the play toward a more adult audience.

Atticus seems less heroic in the play — he's more voluble and argumentative rather than silent and deep. We hear much about his distaste for guns but we don't ever learn why. His moral lessons for Scout and Jem come across as simplistic homilies rather than life wisdom. If I were not already so familiar with the book, I might be wondering what all the fuss is about, based on this version.

The actors do the best they can with these shortcomings, mostly managing to minimize them. Thankfully, Newfield does a winning job with the character of Finch, especially in the courtroom scenes. His summation rang true, with the right mix of conviction and desperation. Later, his agonized cry over his inability to protect his children surely hit home in the hearts of all parents. Unfortunate costume choices, though, make him appear too much the dandy, not enough the small-town lawyer taking turnip greens in payment.

Michael Ray Wisely is excellent as Sheriff Tate, striking the right balance between good old boy and keeper of the peace. Preston wins us over as the timorous Tom Robinson, and Gabriel Hoffman is a standout as the odd little boy Dill who becomes friends with Scout and Jem.

Andrea Bechert's attractive set design gives the sense of a town that has seen better days, and the moveable trees are a nice touch for change of location. The courtroom, however, felt oddly juxtaposed with the town — with a tree right behind the judge's bench, and part of the stage doubling as jury stand and exit to the street.

In addition, all the costumes look brand-new, just off the rack at Ross, and Boo Radley's spooky makeup needs adjusting.

But if it's been a while since you saw the Oscar-winning film, or read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, you may want to renew your acquaintance with Atticus Finch and Maycomb, Ala.

What: "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, adapted by Christopher Sergel, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through May 9, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Tickets are $29-$62.

Info: Go to http://www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

Comments

Posted by Lucy, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2010 at 8:08 am

Jeanie Smith writes well, but I don't understand how she can be fully trusted to write unbiased reviews of Theatreworks and other local theatre companies while she has a vested interest in another company where she is the Associate Artistic Director (i.e. Pear Avenue Theatre). I've never heard of someone on the artistic staff of one theatre writing reviews of other theatres. This seems to be a clear conflict of interest.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2010 at 10:28 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Two works of art, Showboat and To Kill A Mockingbird, my well have been the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the 20th Century. Their illustration of the evils of miscegenation laws and lynch law paved the way, for me and receptive others, to challenge the conventional wisdom that justified Jim Crow. Since the wages of theater critics of Off-off-off productions is unlikely to change one's tax bracket I consider such peer reviews to be informative. Roses to Miss Smith.


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