TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRDBook by Harper Lee, Adapted by Christopher Sergel
Originally Produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey
The Firehouse Theatre
Director – Tyler Jeffrey Adams
Technical Director – Jason Leyva
Stage Manager – Nicole Lugar
Set Designer – Kevin Brown
Costume Designer – Hope Cox
Sound Designer – Brian Christensen
Lighting Designer – Kyle Harris
Fight Choreographer – Jason Leyva
Props Designer – Cathy Pritchett
Production Manager – Rebecca Lowrey
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch – Piper Cunningham
Jem Finch – Luke Knittle
Atticus Finch – John Rodgers
Calpurnia – Nikka Morton
Dill Harris – Stephen Newton
Maudie Atkinson – Sherri Small
Stephanie Crawford/Mrs. Dubose – Christia Caudle
Boo Radley/Nathan Radley – Kieran Hansen
Mr. Gilmer – Chris Naifeh
Tom Robinson – Sean Massey
Mayella Ewell – Riley Jo Payne
Bob Ewell – Mike Hathaway
Judge Taylor/Walter Cunningham – Gary E. Payne
Reverend Sykes – Sam Green, Jr.
Heck Tate – Richard Stephens, Sr.
Reviewed Performance: 9/10/2016
Reviewed by Nicole Mulupi, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Lee tells her story from the point-of-view of six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who lives with her middle-aged widowed father, Atticus, and her older brother, Jem. Atticus, a lawyer, is assigned the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man charged with the rape of a young white woman in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935. As the children question and follow Atticus, even observing him in court, they grow to understand and respect their father, at the same time becoming more and more disillusioned with the town that once seemed so idyllic.
To Kill a Mockingbird was timely when it came out in 1960 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is still relevant today. It received the Pulitzer Prize and became an instant classic—immediately adopted into school curricula across America and around the world. The 1962 movie, directed by Robert Mulligan, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Mary Badham, who played Scout, was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1970, Christopher Sergel got permission from Harper Lee to adapt her book for the stage. His play finally premiered in 1991 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. It has since been performed regularly by countless professional, community, high school and middle school theatre companies, and annually in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, at the courthouse that inspired the courtroom scenes in her book and, thereafter, the movie.
Now, The Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch provides a warm, welcoming environment (especially if you borrow one of the blankets they so generously offer) for theatre-goers to experience this charming, thought-provoking, and transforming tale about social injustice and the importance of taking small, courageous steps toward change. The well-cushioned seats in their small black box theatre are rather close together, but that only adds to the feel you’re watching the show at home with family. So much of a performance is dependent upon the response of an audience, and I was fortunate to be in one that was generous with its laughter, comfortable in close quarters and ready to be pleased. The cozy, laid back atmosphere alone made me want to go back to see their next play.
Tyler Jeffrey Adams brought together a strong cast and crew for this unpretentious production. All of the staging elements are practical, and the show leans almost solely on its own merits. The actors have the set and props they need, but nothing more. The biggest role of the crew here is to not be a distraction. In community theatre, a lot can go wrong. In this show, nothing goes wrong. The sound and lighting cues are effective, well-executed and on time, and all of the characters have the props and set pieces they need, when they need them.
Kevin Brown’s set is constructed mostly of wood and some sheet metal. On stage right is the home of the Finch family. Stage left doubles as the home of their neighbors Stephanie Crawford and Mrs. Dubose. Connecting the two homes, along the back wall, is a fence through which the children attempt to spy on Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor who lives in the house beyond it. The fence also serves as a backdrop for the courthouse in Act II. Above the fence is an upper level balcony which functions as both the bridge from which the children observe their father sitting outside the jail and as the “colored balcony” of the courthouse. One drawback of the set is that it gives the impression that the townspeople live in shacks and are much poorer than they are meant to be. Particularly inspired, though, is the large chalk drawing on the stage floor…the shadow of the tree where Boo Radley hides trinkets for the children to find. You can imagine it rising high into the sky and casting its shade on the children as they play beneath it.
Hope Cox’s costume design provides a sense of setting that the set does not. For example, even though Atticus seems to live in a small wooden shack, he dresses in middle class attire representative of his time period and his profession (though his style is distinctly more old-fashioned than that of the younger prosecuting attorney, Mr. Gilmore).
In this production, the script takes center stage, and it’s up to the actors to make it come alive, which they do admirably. John Rodgers, Piper Cunningham, and Luke Knittle play the Finch family: Atticus, Scout and Jem. As Atticus Finch, Rodgers fully absorbed his character’s personality and motivations; his delivery was natural and full of conviction. Piper Cunningham plays his daughter, the delightfully precocious tomboy, Scout. She held her own as an actress, especially in the mob scene, where she intervenes upon finding Atticus in danger. Luke Knittle, as Jem, was particularly strong in the scenes where he was angry with his father. Perhaps, like most children, he’s had practice. He displayed an acute cognizance of what it’s like to be frustrated with and misunderstood by those in authority.
One of my favorite performances of the evening was that of Stephen Newton as Dill Harris, the runaway nephew of the Finches’ neighbor and the teller of fantastic and amusing tales (and lies). Although Newton is young, he was every bit as strong an actor as any other on stage. I never once caught him out of character. Even amidst the laughter he drew from the audience, he never seemed to be aware that he was on stage playing a role. He simply was Dill Harris.
One common criticism of Lee’s novel is that the African-American characters are too stereotypical and without depth, completely dependent upon and at the mercy of white people. I would agree, to a point. Nikki Morton, who played Calpurnia, the housekeeper, was, perhaps, too much the archetypical mammy-figure—a sassy maternal black lady who is almost part of the family, but still a servant. Still, she was hilarious. Morton’s dramatic expressions and lively tone brought energy to every scene she was in, and no other character engaged the audience more. The Reverend Sykes, played by Sam Green, Jr. was the preacher, singing spirituals everywhere he went—again, a stereotypical figure, but at the same time very likable and important. It was at his invitation that Scout, Jem, and Dill were welcomed into the “colored balcony” to observe the trial of Tom Robinson, and it was he who stood, and encouraged the children to stand, to honor Atticus in the end. Sean Massey played Tom Robinson, the black husband and father falsely accused of rape. Nobody could possibly believe this soft-spoken, sweet-faced Tom Robinson to be guilty of hurting anyone. Massey did an excellent job of portraying his character as the very definition of goodness, kindness and integrity. Yet, his performance was rather one-dimensional (possibly more the fault of the script than of his interpretation, though).
The rest of the cast provided a sense of community and helped establish the setting.
Stephanie Crawford is the town busybody, played by Christia Caudle, who also plays the town bigot—well, one of them—Mrs. Dubose, the morphine-addicted elderly woman who calls Atticus a “nigger-lover.” Oh…by the way, you WILL hear the “N” word often in this play, as it is set in 1930s Alabama. Caudle was amusing as Stephanie Crawford and infuriating as Mrs. Dubose, and her costumes are fantastic. She could easily have stepped right out of Maycomb onto the Firehouse stage.
Sherri Small plays Maudie Atkinson, the kind, perceptive neighbor who also narrates the play. Small has a beautiful speaking voice and she projected an introspective and emotive, yet authoritative tone that made her words float straight into my soul and stick there. Still echoing in my mind are her words (or, Harper Lee’s words), “'Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
The roles of Heck Tate (town sheriff), Mr. Gilmer (prosecuting attorney) and Judge Taylor/Walter Cunningham are played by Richard Stephens, Sr., Chris Naifeh, and Gary E. Payne, respectively. They all gave solid, if not riveting, performances. Each one added their own bit of southern charm to the stage: Stephens brought the cowboy with southern hospitality, Naifeh, the fast-talking good ol’ boy, and Payne doubled as the cynical judge and the uneducated farmer.
Mike Hathaway was suitably disgraceful as Bob Ewell, the abusive father and quintessential “poor white trash.” I don’t know if he was completely believable because I’m not sure I could believe anyone to be so abhorrent as to beat their own daughter, accuse an innocent man of rape and attempt to murder innocent children. Hathaway wasn’t entirely believable, in my opinion, but he was consistently entertaining, especially with his rude comments and belligerent attitude on the witness stand.
Riley Jo Payne gave an impressive performance as Mayella Ewell, the plaintiff against Tom Robinson and daughter of Bob Ewell. Payne’s characterization of Mayella on the witness stand was full of nuance, with overlapping and often conflicting waves of ignorance, fear, pride, defensiveness, and self-doubt. Her hunched posture, furtive glances, stuttering, and choked outbursts made her situation seem plausible, even with comical lines, like, “Don’t want him doin’ me like he done Papa, tryin’ to make him out left-handed.”
Finally, there was Kieran Hansen as Nathan Radley and Boo Radley, “the mockingbird”, as Scout refers to him at the end of the play. He has very few lines, but his character is the thread that ties the story together. The social awkwardness of Boo Radley was well-executed in Hansen’s expressions, tone, and posture, and his gentleness with the children revealed a goodness that they had not imagined him to have when they had speculated on their scary hermit of a neighbor at the beginning of the play. Ultimately, they learn that “most people are [nice] when you finally see them.”
There are so many things that can be learned from this story, and with race issues and the justice system again in the forefront of our national news and social media, the lessons Mockingbird teaches are as timely now as ever. I would recommend this show to adults, teens and, especially, to families with older children. I took my (mature) eleven-year-old daughter, who enjoyed it immensely. Afterwards, she questioned why Mayella Ewell would accuse Tom Robinson even though he was innocent; we were able to discuss the issues of fear and abuse, the pressure of societal expectations, and how we deal with rejection and shame. It is a show worth seeing that is sure to inspire discussions worth having. So, don’t miss it.
The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Ln., Farmers Branch, TX 75234
Now through September 25, 2016
Performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and matinee performances at 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets can be purchased online at www.thefirehousetheatre.com, via phone at 972-620-3747 or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain. Adult tickets are $25, with senior and student discounts available and half-price tickets available on Saturday matinee performances. Group (10+) discounts available by phone.