by Toni Wilson Wood
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great many things to many people–a classic book about racial inequality and injustice, destruction of innocent, and rape, as well as class, courage and compassion. For 9th grade me, it was a book that was boring in the first half and then all came together in the second half to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. The book has so many different threads that run through it, and all of them were important to the end of the book–it just made me wonder how the play would get everything in there. It does, without feeling like it’s skimping on the story and without feeling overly long. The production is well directed, well acted and well designed–and it makes you think.
Mockingbird is also a lesson play–but not in a scolding way or the cheesy predictable way of an after school special. It doesn’t scold–it shows the story and the characters–and audience–come to their own conclusions. The sad part is, the lessons involving racial inequality and injustice still haven’t been learned. That is what makes Mockingbird such a valuable work of art–it speaks to how far we’ve come and how much more work we need to do.
Mockingbird is presented as a memory play, with grown up Scout Finch (played with beautiful emotional depth by Michelle Rathe) narrating the actions of the memories. Generally, I dislike narrators–it feels like a lazy way to tell a story. In this version of the play, the narrator is so well acted and the part is so well written, directed and acted that the audience is given a treat that so many of us wish we could have: the eager earnestness of youth tempered with the benefit of aged hindsight.
The set, designed by Scott Schuster, beautifully supports the memory play aspect of Mockingbird, with the edges of the stage showing fully realized houses belonging to the Finch family and Radley family respectively, but the middle is a barebones sketch of the other buildings in the neighborhood. William Barbour’s lighting design completes the realistic yet dreamy feel to the set. The whole set design and lighting work just transports you back in time.
Abby Zeets played Scout Finch with courage and bravery and James Kuehner played her brother, Jem, equally as courageous and brave, but with an angry streak in him. The pair played siblings well–their arguments were real and their fierce loyalty and love for one another is as deep as any real set of siblings. Add in their pal, Dill Harris (played with delightful imagination by Asher Beermann) and the three of them spend their days not listening to Atticus, Scout and Jem’s father, avoiding their cruel neighbor, Mrs. Dubose (played by Stella Buie with such venom and hatefulness, that I didn’t realize that was actually her until I started writing this review after having seen the show), and attempting to get their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley (Joel Zummak) to come out of his house.
The children who are in the play have possibly the toughest role in this show. Abby Zeets in particular was delightful to watch. Her portrayal of Scout as a young girl with so many questions and such strength and complexity–it was just a joy to see such a young actor do this kind of work. Not to take away from Kuehner or Asher Beermann, of course–they had difficult parts as well, and played them well.
Kyle Beermann as Atticus Finch was stunning. Beermann’s Finch is strong and tall, a lawyer who deals in reason and logic, but is tempered with the reality of life in the South. As he takes on the case of Tom Robinson (Will Frost), he admits that he may not win. “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try and win.” In that action, we are shown a man who has seen and experienced a lot, and has chosen to to stand on the side of history that is correct, regardless of the results. And he tries to teach his children that. The complexity of this character is one of the reasons Atticus Finch is such a great character, and Beermann nailed that complexity.
Brian Merrick played the alcoholic Bob Ewell, who blames Tom Robinson for abusing his daughter, Mayella. He plays this uneducated, verbally disgusting man with the deranged glee of a man who hates the black race so much that he is willing to bet his already tarnished reputation on accusing a black man of attacking and abusing his own daughter. When it comes out later that he was lying, Ewell seeks revenge on Atticus. The showdowns between Ewell and Atticus are tense and beautiful.
Other particular standouts were Kat Smith as the trembling, beleaguered Mayella Ewell, the young woman accusing Tom Robinson of taking advantage of her and beating her, Endya Johnson as the strict but loving cook to the Finch family, Calpurnia, Dave Hisler as the sheriff, Heck Tate and Kimbie Dinsmore as the colorful town gossip, Stephanie Crawford.
I have personally had a lot of racial issues on my mind recently, especially with the current Presidential Election coming. Seeing Will Frost as Tom Robinson trying to assert his innocence while he was on trial made me think. And it made me sad. Hearing him talk about how as a black man he knew he might not get justice made my heart weep for all the black men, women and children who have died for no reason other than just being black.
The show runs through September 25. Tickets available here.