Story: Small-town attorney Atticus Finch is a respected leader in his community, the hamlet of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Widower Finch is accustomed to being paid in food, kindling wood or anything else that his impoverished clients can give him in exchange for his legal services.
Finch’s life and the lives of his two children, Jem and Scout, are about to reach a crossing point. He has been appointed by the local judge to represent a young black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell by Mayella’s brutish father, Bob Ewell. Feelings are running high in town against Tom, fueled by prejudice and ignorance, but ‘Atticus,’ as he’s called by his son and daughter, is determined to represent Robinson as best he can in a court of law where, according to Finch, all men truly are equal, or at least supposed to be.
Highlights: Harper Lee’s inspirational novel, published in 1960, was made into an iconic film in 1962 that starred Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning portrayal of the quiet but compassionate Atticus Finch. The film is frequently mentioned, in fact, as one of the best American movies of the 20th century. In 1990 playwright Christopher Sergel adapted Lee’s work into a two-act drama for the stage.
Insight Theatre Company recently concluded a two-week run of its own production under the careful guidance of director Tom Martin. With stand-out efforts from many of our town’s finest adult performers, Martin presented a smoothly polished and affecting portrait of Lee’s memorable characters in the pre-Civil Rights era South.
Other Info: Unfortunately, two of the three child actors far too frequently were difficult to understand, if not out and out unintelligible. As Dill, Charlie B. Southern was enthusiastic and immersed himself into his part, but at least 80 percent of his dialogue was garbled and indecipherable. To a lesser extent, Lillian Rose Orchard suffered the same fate as the youthful Scout. Perhaps Martin encouraged them to speak directly to the audience. If he did, his instructions simply were not followed, leading to frequent frustration on the part of many audience members.
The kids are alright, though, in their embracing of their characters and their wistful interpretation of Scout and Dill, who is based on real-life writer Truman Capote. As Scout’s older brother Jem, Braden Phillips had a much better command of enunciation and a solid delivery. Perhaps microphones would have been appropriate for the younger children to aid them with their lines.
Bruce Longworth was stable and solid as Atticus. I’ve still never seen a stage performance that rivals Peck’s accomplishment, but Longworth filled Atticus with wisdom, quiet strength and the innate decency that the character embodies. He was complemented by an ingratiating performance by Amy Loui as the adult Scout, who serves as our narrator in this memory play that reflects upon a particularly telling point in her childhood.
The supporting cast featured a number of marvelous turns, including an easy-going but sure-footed performance by Whit Reichert as salty Sheriff Heck Tate. Savvy performer Joneal Joplin was equally at ease as impoverished but decent farmer Walter Cunningham as well as the sagacious Judge Taylor.
A trio of accomplished actresses, namely Donna Weinsting, Sally Eaton and Tommy Nolan, capably essayed the roles of Finch’s neighbors, namely cranky Mrs. Dubose, busybody Stephanie Crawford and kindly Maddie Atkinson, respectively. Thomasina Clarke brought decency and care to the role of the Finch housekeeper, Calpurnia, while Charles Heuvelman delivered a sure and steady presence as Nathan Radley, older brother of the mysterious and reclusive Boo.
Jared Sanz-Agero, while obviously too young for the role of Bob Ewell, brought convincing menace and depravity to the part, but surely someone could have dyed his hair gray for the production. Colleen Backer gave a gritty performance as the lonely and ignorant Mayella, fighting back like a caged animal when she perceives that the ‘lofty’ attorneys are picking on her and her hardscrabble ways.
Justin Ivan Brown made for an effective enough prosecuting attorney and also very briefly played the role of Boo Radley during the work’s climactic moments. Kyle Powell was a caring and controlled Tom Robinson, even in the face of glaring injustice, while Candice Jeanine did well in the small role of Tom’s wife Helen. Don McClendon brought grace and dignity to the part of the Reverend Sykes, with Andrew Moton completing the cast as a ‘townsperson.’
Sean Savoie’s lighting was mesmerizing, particularly when he focused on an individual in a close-up scene on the desolate streets of Maycomb or the pivotal nocturnal adventures of the three kids. Tori Meyer’s soft sound design, William Schmiel’s adaptable set that changed from a neighborhood street to a courtroom scene was effective, as was John Inchiostro’s Depression-era attire.
Some of the dialogue of To Kill a Mockingbird seems a bit weary at times as it’s become embedded in the national psyche. The story, though, radiates for its crystal clear recollection of a time and era whose effects still linger today.
Play: To Kill a Mockingbird
Group: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood
Dates: Run concluded
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb