We, the Jury
We need Atticus Finch. Dedicated, decent, a scholar and father, Finch is the main adult character in Harper Lee's perfect 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. He's a good man, this lawyer Finch, thoughtful, fair, loving and just. Whether from our adolescent acquaintance with him from a high school reading list, or the way we remember him so exquisitely rendered by the leonine Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, what we know for sure about Atticus Finch is that we trust him always to do the right thing. Compared with more modern heroes, literary or otherwise, he is almost too good to be true, too kind, too incorruptible. Nowadays, too rare.
In the first production of its 21st season, Dallas Children's Theater gives us a fine and admirable Atticus Finch in a two-hour To Kill a Mockingbird adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel and directed by Robyn Flatt. Actor Bill Jenkins, in his crackly voice and stooping posture, lets us know that he's not trying to be radically different from Peck, and that's OK. He's not the same Atticus Finch that Peck was, but he's close. Like Peck, Jenkins makes Finch a handsome but weary hero, physically and emotionally eroded from his fight against the Maycomb, Alabama, racists trying to lynch his client, Tom Robinson (Julius Washington), a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. Lawyer Finch shuffles home through the heat of a summer evening only to be taunted by his feisty children, Jem (Johnny Sequenzia) and Scout (Pam Covington), for being too old (he's 50), too distracted and too tired to play ball in the yard like other dads. The only time we see Atticus Finch at full attention is when he delivers that carefully constructed, impassioned summation for the jury he hopes will set Tom free (with the children watching from the courtroom balcony). For the stage version, that jury is the theater audience, to whom the lawyer directly addresses his compelling closing argument in the Act 2 trial scene.
To Kill a Mockingbird, the play, is good, but it isn't as great as its sources, either the novel or the movie (adapted for the screen by Horton Foote). It can't be. The plot is telescoped for time. Whole sections of the novel are reduced to a sentence or two. Background details of the main characters are lost. And by providing an onstage narrator--elderly neighbor Maudie Atkinson (Elly Lindsay)--who steps out of the action to speak right to the audience, the play starts to sound an awful lot like Our Town. In the film, remember, the voiceover narration is by the grown-up Scout (actress Kim Stanley, speaking slowly in a husky drawl), telling the story from memory as we watch it play out onscreen. Switching the point of view from Scout to a neighbor lady for the stage version confuses the storytelling. Just whose story is it now? What's worse is that in the DCT production, actress Lindsay is hard to hear.
Still there is much to admire about this Mockingbird, which soars on the strength of Jenkins' Atticus Finch and on the exuberance of its youngest performers. Pam Covington, a seventh-grader at the Hockaday School, gives tomboy Scout an open heart and a believable tenderness underneath her character's brittle defiance. This young actress bounds through a demanding role with only a bobble here and there. (Covington alternates during the run of the play with Evelyn Roberts.)
As Jem, Johnny Sequenzia is probably too old to be playing a teenager (a slightly receding hairline is a clue), but he flings himself around the set with a boy's gymnastic zeal, and he's a good match for Covington. Playing the kids' precocious little visitor Dill, Henry Monfries (alternating with Sean Jones) bears an eerie resemblance to a child-sized Truman Capote (author Lee's inspiration for the character). Cute lad, but he needs to slow down and speak up.
In this truncated Mockingbird, the biggest injustice to the book is the reduction in importance of the only two black characters--the defendant, Tom Robinson, and the Finches' housekeeper, Calpurnia (Guinea Bennett-Price). This is, after all, a story about racial prejudice, so they deserve better. Calpurnia now just has a couple of lines before she disappears altogether. She's really just a minor character here. Robinson speaks only on the witness stand in the trial scene that dominates the second half of the play. In that role, Julius Washington effectively establishes Tom's innate dignity, as well as his fear that the mob will overrule any well-meaning jury. A lovely, if brief, performance.
The villain of the piece is the white trash redneck Robert E. Lee Ewell, whose daughter Mayella is the alleged rape victim. Actor Karl Schaeffer makes Ewell a greasy little rat of a man, easy to hate and fascinating to watch. Kineta Willow Massey cowers under a curtain of oily hair as Mayella, perjuring herself on the witness stand and flinching from invisible blows she knows her nasty father will later inflict. Two excellent turns by these strong actors.
As in the movie, the climax of the story comes with the sudden appearance of the mysterious Boo Radley, the mute man-child the neighborhood children regard as their resident Boogey Man. Boo (played in this stage version by Michael Rains) saves Jem and Scout from an attack by Ewell. "Hey, Boo," Scout says softly when she spies the shy man hiding in the shadows. Boo is revealed at last, not a monster at all, but a living metaphor for all that has been locked away, unseen and misunderstood, in the small town of Maycomb.
The power of To Kill a Mockingbird still comes through, even in a stage script that sometimes sounds like Cliffs Notes read aloud. Credit for that goes to Harper Lee, not the adapter Sergel, who has chosen to emphasize some parts of the story at the expense of others.
DCT's production probably isn't appropriate fare for younger children. But if they're old enough to read the book, they're certainly old enough to see it acted out. Reading the book first is a good idea for any theatergoer just to become acquainted with the nuances of Lee's characters.
Scenic designer Zak Herring provides mere suggestions of specific locations for the Mockingbird set. A tangle of wooden slats doubles for a forest of trees. Bare front porches sit in for houses. Linda Blase's lighting is appropriately unfancy. Leila Heise's costume designs hint at the 1930s, in a day and time when everyone looked a bit wilted and down at the heels. Atticus Finch, in his spotless three-piece ice cream suit, stands in stark contrast to every other character. He is the mythic giant in white, pure inside and out.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.