For its latest production, the Media Theatre has turned to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic story known by millions of readers. The stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel tells the story efficiently, and the new production is enlivened by some excellent performances.
Lee’s story of the noble attorney Atticus Finch, his curious children Scout and Jem, and their quest for justice, goodness and equality in Depression-era Alabama still carries a lot of resonance. It’s hard not to be touched by the lessons Atticus teaches his children, and it’s hard not to have empathy for them as they deal with the racist townspeople who have railroaded an innocent black man for the rape of an indolent white woman. Sergel’s script uses plenty of quotations from Lee’s novel, many spoken by the Finch family’s neighbor, Maudie (Hillary Parker), who takes over from the adult Scout as the narrator in this version.
But Cline’s production is too stagnant, filled with long, dull pauses, and could use more vitality. Atticus’ biggest moment – the eloquent speech he delivers to a jury on behalf of his client – is robbed of much of its impact by having Atticus stand completely still at center stage for several minutes. Scenes tend to drift away aimlessly, and scene changes are filled with the dull thud of footsteps as actors carry props on and off the stage.
Some background music – perhaps some harmonica or steel guitar to remind us we’re in the South in the 1930s – would help to set the scene and fill all the silences. The only music in the show (aside from some 1950s Hank Williams tunes played during intermission) is two hymns sung early on by a choir from the Second Baptist Church of Media, led by Pastor Warren Mays. The excellent singers lend the show some needed warmth and authenticity.
Bob Stineman does a fine job as Atticus, gently conveying his decency, his integrity, and his concern both for his children and for fairness. With his lean frame, jet black hair, horn-rimmed glasses and pinstripe suit, his appearance almost seems designed to evoke memories of Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus in the 1962 movie version.
There are other strong performances too, including Travis Keith Battle, who shows strength and purpose as the accused man, Tom Robinson; Kelly Briggs as the plainspoken sheriff; and Tim Woodward Sr. as the belligerent bigot Bob Ewell. (Alas, some of the supporting players were hard to hear, their words swallowed up in the hall’s echoey acoustics.)
The youngest performers proved themselves more than capable of holding the stage: Jolie Jaffe as Scout (she played the role at the performance I attended, alternating in the role with Lexi Gwynn); Ben Pederson as her brother Jem (alternating with Brayden Orpello-McCoy); and Tim Woodward Jr. as their playmate Dill (alternating with Jacob Shapiro).
The best performance in To Kill a Mockingbird is the most nuanced: Megan Rucidlo as Mayella Ewell, the supposed victim. Her shoulders hunched and her head downcast, looking as if she’s afraid to speak a word, Rucidlo’s Mayella is a powder keg ready to explode. The scene where she testifies crackles with tension, and it’s a real joy to see.
Katie Yamaguchi provides some suitable period costumes, but Matthew Miller’s set consists mostly of a couple of walls covered with unfinished wooden slats nailed together somewhat haphazardly. This set gives the false impression that Atticus and his neighbors are destitute, living in primitive shacks. Meanwhile, a large video screen at the rear of the stage shows quaint, nostalgic photos of an idealized small town that fit Lee’s descriptions more accurately.
The best moment in Media Theatre’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes, oddly enough, during intermission. For twenty minutes, as Hank Williams tunes play, an image of a waving Confederate battle flag fills the projection screen. It’s a stark reminder of the forces that Atticus Finch is facing off against – and a reminder that the battle he fought eighty years ago is not over.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.