Dallas Theater Center Presents a Muted, Miscast To Kill a Mockingbird

The smaller roles and the actors who play them are the reasons to see To Kill a Mockingbird, now playing at the Wyly Theatre in a Dallas Theater Center production. Anastasia Muñoz, playing both the judgmental "Miss Stephanie" and the rape-accuser Mayella Ewell, is so good you probably won't realize it's the same actress in two parts. James Dybas, as Mayella's father, the twitchy, illiterate hillbilly Bob Ewell, is so authentically terrifying, you worry about how he treats his seven other children, the ones you never see in the play.

The Ewells are a big part of the best scenes in this production, at the center of tense courtroom sequences that span parts of acts 1 and 2. They are the witnesses against Tom Robinson (played with lovely subtlety by Akron Watson), the black man on trial for his life in a rape case in which the only evidence proves he couldn't have done it. But this is Alabama, 1935, so you know how it's going to turn out.

This staging, directed by Wendy Dann, uses an adaptation of Harper Lee's novel by Christopher Sergel. In a co-production between DTC and Fort Worth's Casa Mañana, the show has undergone changes since it played at Casa earlier this fall. A new leading man, out-of-town import Jeremy Webb, was brought in to play noble defense attorney Atticus Finch. And there were revisions in the script.

What's onstage now is a muted, condensed version of Lee's story about injustice in the Deep South as seen through children's eyes. The languid quality of the book, captured so well in the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, is lost here. Everything happens in a hurry, including much of the children's dialogue, which the young actors in this cast - Morgan Richards as Scout, David Allen Norton as Jem and Aidan Langford as Dill - speak so quickly, and at such uneven volume, you often miss whole paragraphs.

The boxy Wyly Theatre doesn't serve a talky play like this well. Acoustics are always a problem here, even when the actors are miked; sightlines are spotty, too. On the Mockingbird set by designer Donna Marquet, there are mere suggestions of front porch, courtroom and jailhouse, but the way the acting space is devised, actors often block each other.

Webb looks far too young to be a credible 50-year-old Finch (his age is mentioned in the script) and he falls into a sing-songy rhythm when he speaks. Dallas actress M. Denise Lee is fine as the Finches' housekeeper Calpurnia, but her role has been edited down to nothing more than a few barks of "dinner's ready!" and "get in the house." Same for Pam Dougherty, who rolls on in a vintage wheelchair as Mrs. Dubose, says about two lines and never appears again.

As the thinly written narrator, Maudie, DTC company member Sally Nystuen Vahle hovers like a ghost through some scenes. It's never really made clear who she's supposed to be or why she gets to talk to the audience when everyone else remains solidly inside the fourth wall. Vahle adopts an imperious tone for her character that's off-putting, like an old-timey schoolmarm impatient with her class.

This play seemed like a strange addition to the DTC season in the first place. It'll play OK to school groups, I guess. But audiences of every age will find the book and the movie to be far more stylish and emotionally connected experiences.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues through November 20 at the Wyly Theatre. Box office, 214-880-0202.

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