Story: Thirty-five-year-old Jean Louise Finch reflects back on her childhood in Maycomb, Alabama as she recalls the memorable year of 1935, and particularly that summer. Known as Scout at the time, she spent most of that season with her older brother Jem (Jeremy) and a new young neighbor, Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, who told them he was staying with his aunt until school started again.
The major pre-occupation for the kids was catching a glimpse of the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley, a young man who lived with his father, venturing out only occasionally at night. Soon enough, Scout discovers little gifts, trinkets for her and Jem, often left in the hollow of a big tree near the Radley home.
Her widowed father, an attorney named Atticus Finch, makes a modest living doing legal work for the town’s impoverished residents, sometimes being paid in food from area farmers for his efforts. He tells Scout that every attorney has a career-defining case once in his or her life. For him, it’s his defense that summer of Tom Robinson, a poor black man who has been accused of rape by an impoverished young white woman named Mayella Ewell.
When Scout tells her father that the kids in school, as well as their parents, are contemptuous of Finch is representing a black man, Atticus tells her that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Defending Tom Robinson is the case that Atticus Finch believes will define his career, his principles and his life. Before all is said and done, it will also do much to explain how his daughter grew up to become the woman she is.
Highlights: To celebrate its 50th anniversary, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has filled its 2016-17 season with classic works by Stephen Sondheim, Charles Dickens and Arthur Miller. It continues this memorable season with a strong presentation of To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1990 drama adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The Rep’s version should please most devotees of Lee’s enduring story about basic human kindness.
Other Info: Director Risa Brainin has made several excellent choices as well as one puzzling gaffe for The Rep’s presentation. The inclusion of black gospel songs is important for two reasons: First, it puts a stronger focus on the racism prevalent in The South in the ‘30s and the suffering long endured by its black citizens.
Second, it avoids a classical sound design that might compare unfavorably to the iconic score written by Elmer Bernstein for the memorable 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which also featured a screenplay by Horton Foote, direction by Robert Mulligan and an Oscar-winning portrayal by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
That latter name provides its own set of problems for anyone who is cast in the 1990 theatrical version of Lee’s novel. Peck’s performance is indelibly etched in the American psyche and a formidable force for comparison by any actor.
Jonathan Gillard Daly, whose career began at The Rep in 1977, does excellent work in the titular role of the attorney, even if he isn’t as memorable as Peck. He’s particularly strong in the courtroom scene in the second act as he interrogates a number of witnesses about the alleged rape.
That scene includes two other outstanding performances, those of Rachel Fenton as the lonely, hardscrabble Mayella Ewell and Alan Knoll as her hard-drinking, angry and unrepentant father Bob Ewell.
The former delivers a heart-rending, affecting turn as a girl whose loneliness leads to an ill-fated meeting with the black laborer Robinson as well as her subsequent testimony, where she lashes out at all of her imagined slights at the hands of ‘fancy’ town folks whom she suspects think they’re better than her. It’s an achingly effective interpretation.
The genial Knoll goes against type casting as the vicious Ewell, who attacks like a wounded animal when he’s on the stand, snarling at any suggestion made by Finch, such as whether he’s left-handed as opposed to Robinson, whose only good hand is his right one, an important distinction noted by Atticus during the trial.
There’s also excellent work done by Kaylee Ryan as Scout and Charlie Mathis as Dill, two youngsters whose poise and savvy on stage belie their youth. Young Kaylee captures the mannerisms of the tomboyish Scout as well as her natural curiosity and innate goodness, which are shrewdly copied by Lenne Klingaman as the adult Jean Louise, the story’s sagacious on-stage narrator.
Kaylee’s twin brother Ronan Ryan is solid as Scout’s protective older brother Jem and Tanesha Gary is precise in her studied reading in the role of Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid. Christopher Harris shines in two roles, as the embarrassed farmer Walter Cunningham and as the elusive and heroic Boo Radley.
Local performers Jerry Vogel and Whit Reichert contribute excellent portrayals as the town’s well-meaning Sheriff Heck Tate and fair-minded Judge Taylor, respectively, while Amy Loui does well in the role of the Finches’ amiable neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson.
Cynthia Darlow plays the mean-spirited neighbor, Mrs. Dubose, with just enough hint of something going on in her own life to warrant reflection of Atticus’ advice about other people’s clothes, and Terrell Donnell Sledge has an excellent scene as the good-hearted but star-crossed Tom Robinson.
A real puzzler is having the youthful-looking Ben Nordstrom play Boo Radley’s father, even though Harris looks older as the “son.” It’s a casting choice that simply makes no sense, given that Reichert could easily have portrayed that minor role and looked much more convincing. Nordstrom, however, is very good as Maycomb County’s slick and callous prosecuting attorney.
Michael Keck and Kimmie Kidd do well as Reverend Sykes and Robinson’s wife Helen, and Keck composed and musically directs the stirring gospel numbers that are sung by Keck, Kidd and ensemble players Miriam Dance, Melissa Harris, Alicia Reve Like, Jason J. Little and Felicia Rogers, who swell the gospel group with their soaring voices and troubled faces.
Another careful choice in the production is Narelle Sissons’ scenic design, which is dominated by the Radley tree at stage left. That’s significant, in that the children’s pursuit of the “real” Boo Radley permeates the novel, the film and the play as much as the story depicts the savagery of racism. More problematic is the decision to move furniture and other props in and out as the drama unfolds, which can be as distracting as it is artistic.
Michael Klaers adds the pensive lighting design and Devon Painter’s costumes hearken to the Great Depression in the clothes of the poor as well as the finer threads worn by County Prosecuter Mr. Gilmer and the bow tie sported by the eccentric Dill.
As moving as To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be, it also calls to mind an observation made by the late film critic Roger Ebert, who criticized “the cliché of the honest white man standing for a helpless black.”
Still, To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print since it first was published in 1960, and in 2003 the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as “the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.” The Rep’s well-wrought presentation of the tale's theatrical adaptation is a fitting addition to the story’s lasting legacy.
Play: To Kill a Mockingbird
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 5
Tickets: $18-$81.50; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.