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May 15, 2007 > To Kill a Mockingbird, Play Review

To Kill a Mockingbird, Play Review

By Steve Warga

The book only spanned 288 pages in paperback format, yet that modestly sized story managed to touch upon a breathtaking range of humanity at its honorable best and self-absorbed worst. It was Lee's only published book, famously produced on the big screen starring Gregory Peck at his very finest; adapted for theatre by Christopher Sergel.

With a pedigree so rich, the Douglas Morrison Theatre - or DMT as they prefer - faced a daunting challenge when they elected to produce this play, running May 11 to 27 in Hayward. The now familiar tale of a black man in the old South accused of raping a young, white woman, is narrated through the eyes of Jean Louisee "Scout" Finch, an engaging, intelligent and preternaturally wise six-year old.

The role of Scout comprises a super-size meal for a child actor. In this production, young Lisa Marie Woods consumes every morsel and even polishes her plate with all the aplomb of a miniature Katherine Hepburn. This is no real surprise given Lisa's impressive resume of stage, screen and dancing credits compiled in a mere eleven years ... but going on twelve, no doubt!

(If you're planning to catch this play, be advised that the roles of Scout and older brother, Jem, are played by two sets of actors, in alternating performances. The program guide offers no explanation for this unusual arrangement, but given the caliber of acting in Friday's premier, patrons should expect similar adeptness from both teams.)

The trio of children - Scout, Jem (Travis Mattas, son of Milpitas City Attorney Steve Mattas), and Dill, their extroverted, entertaining friend played adeptly by Ryker Johnson - shoulder the task of telling the tale of events and people disrupting the lazy days of summer, 1935, in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. The kids are aided by the on-stage narration of Ana Williams as an adult Jean Louise Finch.

Williams, a long-time Bay Area performer, mixes a pinch too much pecan-pie-sweetness in her appearances, but it's the staging of those appearances that becomes clunky on occasion. A voice-over, off-stage might have been more effective. Personal taste, perhaps; but there's little doubt the play needs a narrator in one form or another.

Another Bay Area veteran, Chris Chapman, plays the part of Scout's father, Atticus Finch, attorney-at-law, resident intellect and distinctly non-Southern brand of free thinker who often finds himself at odds with his fellow Maycomb natives.

Gregory Peck won an Oscar as Atticus in Universal Picture's 1962 release and he seems to have cemented his portrayal as the standard for all Atticuses to follow. Chapman, however, brings a slightly different take the role in a way that suggests a deliberate break from stage tradition. He affects more standoffish mannerisms than Peck's and comes across as more stern and demanding, especially with the kids. Chapman's role and even his physical appearance bring to mind those of actor Dan Akroyd playing Miss Daisy's stuffed-shirt son in another Oscar-winning film, Driving Miss Daisy; a bit stiff and pompous.

Among many fine performances from numerous lead actors, Mara Bartlett subtly and deftly excels as the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell. In her DMT debut, Bartlett's turn on the witness stand sneaks up on the audience, then suddenly grabs them by the throat with a powerful projection of indignant rage at the suggestion she might be lying to cover-up a forbidden sexual pass at a black man. Let's hope we see more of her in our local theatres.

Larry Appleton as Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, turns in an equally impressive performance at the other end of the acting scale. His menacing, glowering, backwoods character portrayal comes across as convincingly as if he had passed his acting genes to stage daughter, Bartlett.

Ultimate kudos, however, must be accorded to R. F. "Deacon" Tillman as the accused Negro, Tom Robinson. This East Coast native brings his stage and camera experiences into perfect focus during Robinson's long soliloquy while on the witness stand. For those precious few minutes comprising most of his total stage time, Tillman is Robinson; a decent, and maybe na•ve, young black man living in rural poverty on the fringes of a white man's world. In what one hopes will be an award-winning turn, the highly intelligent and talented Tillman cleverly bequeaths the audience his version of a man whose average IQ suffers further from the lack of educational opportunities confronting blacks in deepest Alabama, the Heart of Dixie, long before the Civil Rights movement takes hold.

One puzzle of this production is the costuming of Robinson's withered left arm. Given the significance of this handicap, why couldn't costume designers come up with something more convincing than merely requiring Tillman to hold his left arm rigid against his hip? It seems even a pinned sleeve might have worked better.

But this is not any fault of Tillman's, nor does this curious decision mar the overall excellence of the staging, lighting and costuming. Scenic Designer George Ledo, once a professional magician, has brought his illusory touch to DMT's stage this month. Ledo's props work a fair and pleasant illusion on the somewhat tight confines of DMT's stage. Give him, his crew and all the production team an A-plus.

In 1957, Harper Lee submitted her manuscript "To Kill a Mockingbird" to publisher J. P. Lippencott. The publisher rejected the submission noting it was a collection of short stories haphazardly strung together. Over the next two and a half years, Lee thoroughly reworked her story and earned best seller distinctions in 1960 and a Pulitzer Prize the following year. To this day, her books sales continue in strength.

A similar criticism of inconsistent plotting might well be laid at the feet of the late dramatist Christopher Sergel. His stage adaptation of the novel simply reaches too far in its attempts to portray every part of the original. His inclusion of an on-stage narrator detracts from the story's natural flow and adds even more large doses of drawn-out moralizing from numerous actors throughout the performance. Sergel's adaptation short-changes the audiences' ability to draw their own moral conclusions from the rich drama presented. The end result is a DMT production that drags at times more than it should.

Beyond this criticism, however, you'll find a polished, professional presentation of an enduring and endearing tale at Douglas Morrison Theatre. The considerable efforts of cast and crew commendably enhance a multi-generational effort to keep alive Harper Lee's masterpiece.

Directed by Nancy McCullough Engle
Recommended for all ages

To Kill a Mockingbird
Douglas Morrison Theatre
22311 N. Third Street, Hayward
May 11 - 27
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Sunday Matinees, 2 p.m.
(510) 881-6777

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