To Kill A Mockingbird at the Guthrie Theater

Baylen Thomas and Mary Bair in To Kill A Mockingbird. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Baylen Thomas and Mary Bair in To Kill A Mockingbird. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In an interview in 1964 Harper Lee, the author of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (stage version at the Guthrie Theater, through Oct 18) said, “All I want to be is the Jane Austin of South Alabama.” Fifty years later it would seem that she has been successful. Her story has been adapted for both stage, by Christopher Sergel, and for film. Many people even now grow up revering both the widowed lawyer, Atticus Finch and his precocious, and often times combative daughter, “Scout.”

The production now at the Guthrie Theatre on the Wurtele Thrust stage is a likeable version of this well-regarded story. Three children, played by alternating pairs of actors, anchor the tale: the indomitable Scout, played opening night by Mary Bair; her older brother, Jem, (Noah Deets); and their friend, the new boy in town, Dill (Isaac Leer) keep the first act racing along. Director John Miller-Stephany gives the children little stage business to keep them occupied, relying instead on the dialogue itself to carry the story. The young actors ably portray the loyalties and curiosities of three children doing their best to grow up with little adult supervision.

The trio of children is balanced in the first act by a trio of town ladies: the frightening old Mrs. Dubose (Candace Barret Birk); the town gossip, Miss Stephanie Crawford (Jennifer Blagen); and the practical and pretty narrator, Miss Maudie Atkinson (Stacia Rice). Rice and Blagen in particular bring just the right amount of comfort to their interchanges as if their friendship goes back to elementary school and Mrs. Dubose is believably eccentric as she tries to force a Victorian era gentility on to a depression era generation. These characters, as well as the set by designer James Youmans with its faded paint and trees hung with Spanish moss ground the first act in small town Alabama circa 1935.

It is in the second act of To Kill A Mockingbird, however, that the production gains its true footing. Miller-Stephany slows the pace and allows the seriousness of the situation to descend as the heat in the courtroom becomes palpable and tension hangs in the still air. The black man, Tom Robinson, (Ansa Akyea) is on trial for raping a nineteen-year-old white woman, a capital offense. Atticus Finch (Baylen Thomas) is the widowed father of Scout and Jem, and is defense attorney for the almost certainly innocent, though almost certain to be found guilty, Tom Robinson. Lighting designer, Marcus Dilliard, brings a warm glow to the proceedings as Baylen Thomas presents a courtroom demeanor that is self-possessed and compelling.

However it is Ashley Rose Montondo, the supposed rape victim, Mayella Ewell, whose characterization verges on stereotype. With her wild eyes and strained posture she appears to have walked directly out of a Walker Evans photograph.

When the trial ends, the narrator Maudie Atkinson tells us that the events we have just witnessed are a “step in the right direction” (even though Tom Robinson is found guilty and later killed in a failed prison escape). In present day America, in the wake of many accounts of institutionally sanctioned brutality of blacks one may find this attitude more disappointing than comforting. The play strives to show, in its final scenes, that most of the white folks of Maycomb, Alabama are good-hearted by their embrace of the reclusive Boo Radley. Call it a benediction of sorts for this fictional town.

Overall, the Guthrie’s production of this old chestnut can hardly be faulted. Like baseball, hotdogs and apple pie To Kill A Mockingbird is a part of American lore. In that respect Harper Lee has fulfilled her legacy perhaps more than even she imagined.







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