Starting with disturbing and powerful black and white images of segregation, Christopher Sergel‘s dramatization of Harper Lee’s breathtaking story, To Kill A Mockingbird stomps solidly with a quiet intensity onto the Festival Stage at the Canadian Stratford Festival. The images projected take us back to a time and a place of racial inequality and violence, loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family, her neighbors and an event that occurred near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 1936, when she was 10 years old. The most striking and horrific of the images shown bring to mind the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, laying out the earthen ground that these characters will walk upon. And with that tragedy as backdrop, the grown up Jean Louise Finch, played with assurance and fragility by Irene Poole, more commonly referred to as ‘Scout’ when she was a child, launches into the classic role of story-telling narrator of this touching memory play. With an incredible emotionality resonating in every breath and word spoken by the gifted Poole, the tale of the white lawyer Atticus Finch, played with a solidly felt performance by Jonathan Goad, spills forward with an earthy warm feel, making it apparent right from the beginning why this book and it’s meaningful story has had such lasting appeal. Atticus, as his children prefer to call him, is really the beating heart of thoughtful courage and compassion, has been assigned the fraught job of defending a black man falsely accused of rape, and the town folk aren’t happy about any of it.
The story, taking place during the years of the Great Depression (1933–35) in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, is a magnetically challenging look at rape, segregation, and racism in America’s South as seen through the wide-eyed spunkiness of the feisty Scout, the young white daughter played by the electric Clara Poppy Kushnir. Many have complained, as the program contends, that this play is less about how an innocent black man, Tom Robinson (Matthew G. Brown) loses his life because of the racism that is prevalent in that time and place, and more about the privileged white children who are confronted with the ugly truth of racism. At its core, the play is a coming of age story of a white girl in the devastating world of violence, racism, and it’s deadly ramifications, with the surprising climax of the story being a white boy’s broken arm, and not the shooting of a black man. To Kill a Mockingbird, the book, renowned for its warmth and humor, has at its core an important added lesson in empathy and about what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes. And as directed with clarity and compassion by Nigel Shawn Williams, this prodcution, emphasising the pain that resides within all communities within the town, including the heartbreak of the black community with its group cry of anguish, sneaks into your heart and challenges us to see privilege and injustice through the heart and soul of this young girl.
One by one the characters are introduced to us through narration. It feels very old-fashioned yet charmingly done, especially as orchestrated in movement and style on the warm wooden set accompanied by the worn beige costumes by designer Denyse Karn, with gentle lighting by Michelle Ramsay. Lee utilizes a middle-class narrative voice within her text as a literary device that allows a guttural and earthy connection, regardless of class or cultural background, and this production holds that tight, eliciting a strong sense of nostalgia and intimacy. There is Scout’s older brother, Jem , played wisely by Jacob Skiba and the awkward and very endearing young runaway friend, Dill, played strongly and uniquely by the gifted Hunter Smalley. They are all frightened and intrigued by the family’s mysterious reclusive neighbor, Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley and his kind and quiet brother, Nathan, both played well by Rylan Wilkie. The three children run naturally and easily around those hot southern stretches of earth, challenging each other to acts of daringness and questioning everything around them. They are looked after by the finely drawn black housekeeper Calpurnia, played strongly by Sophia Walker, but are also tortured by the foul-tempered sickly old woman, Mrs. Dubose, played righteously by Marion Adler, who carries her own secrets next door that prove to be well-worn by the children’s life lesson of the day. Many more wander past the house, all strongly etched from the book by gifted actors; Michelle Giroux as Maudie Atkinson, Tim Campbell as Sheriff Heck Tate, Jacklyn Francis as Stephanie Crawford, Roy Lewis as Reverend Sykes, and John Kirkpatrick as Walter Cunningham Sr. It’s a smorgasbord of fine acting and graceful character playing, with some parts feeling inconsequential and others rising to an importance in a surprising and most elegant manner.
But it’s really centered on an important but sidelined scenario; Tom Robinson, a simple kind black man has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (Jonelle Gunderson), the daughter of the town’s head redneck racist, Bob Ewell (Randy Hughson). It’s clearly proven in Judge Taylor’s (Joseph Ziegler) court room that this is a false accusation, but the sentence doesn’t go the way it should. And even though this to our modern sensibilities should be the headline that Robinson is found unjustly guilty, the plot point is really just a device for enlightenment of the children. The horrid Bob Ewell, even with the unjust outcome of the trial, is left humiliated, spitting in Atticus’ face and vowing to enact revenge upon Atticus. Most know where this story is heading, having read the book in high school, but I did not (us Canadians read different books, mostly by Canadian authors naturally), and I had a hard time remembering the plot from the Gregory Peck 1962 film but I did remember its honor and its liberal themes of compassion and empathy. The tragedy is clearly drawn in this Stratford production, quite effectively, churning our insides around, causing numerous audience members to gasp at the sight of the KKK uniformed men approaching the lone good man, Atticus, sitting up all night in order to protect his client from the mob. It connects us to a rhetoric of the old South while layering ideas of what is happening in the present United States, lightly and subtly, and it does so with an old-fashioned ease and simplistic hand holding, guiding us steadfastly through the sharp dangerous thorns of America’s past history and present crisis. This 1990 adaptation works its sepia-toned magic on us with well worn theatrics and a clear heart. Interestingly, the play usually asks white male audience members during the intermission to make up the jury on stage, and although this concept is not utilized, the idea is compelling and adds a layer of collusion making it hard for the audience members to remove themselves from the verdict and the outcome. I look forward to seeing what Aaron Sorkin has in store when he brings Jeff Daniels and his Broadway-bound version to the stage this fall, but at the Stratford Festival in Canada, tears came to my eyes, surprisingly, and although the focus of the whole seems off-centered and privileged, the clarity and sentiment are rightly in focus.