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A generation of Americans picked up Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird and found a mirror reflecting the best and worst of the American character, and for many readers who came to it during the turmoil of the civil rights struggle in the ’60s, it marked a turning point in the development of social consciousness. Passing time and the sordid, pervasive phenomena of O.J. Simpson and Rodney King have sapped some of its power, but this deceptively simple tale of racial prejudice and justice denied still has lessons to impart.
Sadly, though, the book loses an essential something in the translation to the stage. The story centers on Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama; it’s told through the eyes of Scout, his precocious tomboy daughter. With her older brother, Jem, Scout comes of age during the summer her father takes on the town, losing, as is traditional in these stories, both her innocence and her illusions.
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In Christopher Sergel’s stage version the narrative, shorn of much of the author’s descriptive prose, is exposed as somewhat predictable and a little melodramatic: Lawyer takes case, fights good fight, faces prejudice from ignorant neighbors, nearly loses children in process. Or perhaps that impression, too, is the effect of time and experience; after Fried Green Tomatoes and The Spitfire Grill, after Forrest Gump and A Time to Kill, we know from the start that justice won’t be done and that the frightening village idiot will turn out to be a gentle hero.
Ron Ursano’s moody incidental music adds significant atmosphere to Olney Theatre’s production, which plays out on a James Kronzer set that’s typically gorgeousall screens and lath and slanting lightbut somewhat restrictive in the way it forces most of the action into the foreground. Carole Lehan is on the whole graceful as the adult Scout, who frames and comments upon the action. Sometimes, though, she seems to be working too hard to project that tone of tranquil nostalgia that hangs over the novel like so much Spanish moss. She doesn’t need to; it’s there in the text.
Alan Wade brings a commendably understated gravity to Atticus; he’s convincing as a kind of patrician outsider, forever separated from the town’s common horde by temperament and education. Robert W. White invests the accused, Tom Robinson, with a kind of grounded dignity that helps round out an otherwise one-dimensional character. (One reason Lee’s novel seems less profound now than when it initially appeared is that it focuses almost exclusively on Scout’s experience with injustice, with barely a nod to the anguish of Robinson’s friends and family. The play, which deletes Scout’s visit to Robinson’s church, offers if anything a less-nuanced depiction of its black characters.)
Pacing is a problem in the Olney production, especially with the three young actors at the center of the story. Too often they don’t give important speeches room to breathe: After helping to defuse a crucial confrontation with a lynch mob at the town jail, for instance, young Scout (Adrianne Manzelli, otherwise adorable) barely misses a beat, piping up blithely with a “Can we go home now?” that shatters too soon the tension the other actors have worked to build. Bobby Steggert is winning as the essentially decent Jem, who’s only beginning to appreciate his father’s character; Matthew Mezzacapa, who exhibited a kind of otherworldly charm as Olney’s Little Prince not so long ago, is merely hammy as Dill, an extroverted character based on the young Truman Capote.
One redeeming factor is Christine Tivel, who manages to evoke both pity and disgust as the near-illiterate woman whose suppressed sexuality and bleak home life lead her to an impulsive action that destroys an innocent man’s life. Tivel’s performance has depth, snarl, and bite; her slatternly Mayella is both human and less than, a victim and a criminal, and the character is all the more tragic for Tivel’s sensitivity. As her abusive sot of a father, Carter Jahncke is effective but hardly three-dimensional (though that may be the author’s fault, not his).
The production fails to mesh completely, though, despite its strengths. There are affecting moments, yes, but they’re few and far between; not even the children, sad to say, are likely to weep much over this Mockingbird.CP