Sunday, January 31, 2016

Standing up for justice in a small Southern town: IRT has a new production of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

A beloved book with a strong narrative voice at the center carries strong pluses and minuses over into a stage adaptation. On the one hand, there is the thrilling familiarity of the story and the characters in the flesh in front of us; on the other, there is a dilemma of what to do with that voice. It has to diminish somewhat to allow room to render recalled events in action.

Jean Louse Finch (Lauren Briggeman) with the townsfolk she recalls as backdrop.
First-person narration by a central character puts a novel on intimate footing with one reader  at a time. This is the case with Scout when we read "To Kill a Mockingbird."

How to minimize its loss in the theater? The solution behind the Christopher Sergel adaptation that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened this weekend is to have the adult Scout onstage, facing us,  to capture much of the retrospective wisdom of the story the way Harper Lee wrote it.

Lauren Briggeman presents Jean Louise Finch, to give her the name she reassumed after she outgrew the tomboy nickname Scout, in a believable manner. She captures the steadiness of insight and the quiet wonder behind Scout's recollection of her father and her sleepy Alabama hometown. It doesn't allow for much range, however, and doesn't seem as if it would be rewarding to play.

Atticus elicits his client's testimony while Heck Tate looks on.
Yet Jean Louise's prominence here helps skew the play toward the adult perspective on the story's central events. There's no question that the trial of a black man on a rape charge is pivotal, and a revelation of the character of his attorney. The perspective of the three children — Scout, her older brother Jem, and their new friend, lonely, eccentric out-of-towner Dill — haunts the show but never feels central to it.

The upright Atticus Finch, recently a figure of some dismay among "To Kill a Mockingbird" fans for how he comes across in the novel's sequel, "Go Set a Watchman," is scrutinized by everybody in Maycomb. In the IRT production, Atticus is capably portrayed by Ryan Artzberger in a performance that admits anger and frustration as coloring for the lawyer's steadfastness and devotion to justice.

The community feeling, which crucially extends uneasy respect for Atticus while adhering to its values on both sides of the racial divide, is attractively presented. Tim Grimm, who plays Heck Tate, the sheriff responsible for enforcing those values, also wrote arrangements the cast sings. The setting of "Hush, Hush," which opens the show, is especially apt. The African-American spiritual, with its reminder that "somebody's calling my name," sets a seal on the play's powerful reminder that individual responsibility is a difficult burden everyone may be called upon to shoulder.

IRT's large cast, directed by Janet Allen, credibly portrays the strains the case makes on the town's cohesiveness. Those are underlined by the effect of the national Depression on Maycomb's already hardscrabble existence, where the only relief is the gossip stridently shared by Stephanie Crawford (Laurel Goetzinger) and moderated more humanely by Maudie Atkinson (Jan Lucas).

The set and lighting designs, explicitly in statements by Bill Clarke and Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein, are conceived as crucial to the experience of Scout and her two companions. It's enough to represent her own house by its front porch, where the hired cook and domestic boss Calpurnia (Milicent Wright) appears from time to time as representative of all that holds the Finch household together.

Bulking large is the gnarled pecan tree in the yard next to the house where the recluse Boo Radley lives. The menace applied to both structures in the childish imagination is beautifully realized. In the midst of all this support for the juvenile experience and viewpoint, however, the impression made by the three kids seemed a little uneven Saturday night.

Scout was thoroughly contrasted in the performances of Lauren Briggeman and Paula Hopkins.
In particular, Paula Hopkins as Scout nails the girl's sauciness and curiosity, but is less successful conveying her endearing quality. This is certainly an aspect we need to see in order to bridge the play's unsettling events and their recollection by the mature Jean Louise years later. It's part of what makes the character of Atticus so powerful — the aura that affects the citizens of Maycomb, both black and white, also radiates toward Jem and Scout and, by extension, Dill. (The young actor who showed that sensitivity to Atticus best was Grayson Molin as Jem.) On the technical side, Paula tended to deliver her lines with marked accents that often obscured the words in between the accented ones.

Of the rest of the cast, there was plenty of focus on low life in the performances of Robert Neal as Bob Ewell, seizing the opportunity to disguise his abusive parenting with a baseless charge against Tom Robinson (played with a moving vulnerability and truthfulness by Daniel Martin), and Katherine Shelton as his desperate daughter, Mayella. James Solomon Benn stood firm as a father-figure and bulwark of endurance in the black community as Reverend Sykes. Charles Goad gave a performance as the prosecuting attorney that seemed to acknowledge the unreliability of the charge while also underlining  prejudices of the time and place that he knew would be sufficient to secure a conviction.

All told, this is an earnest production loaded with appropriate atmosphere that illustrates some of the persistent difficulties in giving an even texture to a production that necessarily seesaws between adult memories and a world of childhood struggling to understand why the grownups handle difficult matters the way they do.

What remains outstanding with me is the spirit and tension of the courtroom scene and the vigorous staging of the climactic fight that rids the town of the menace that has cost an innocent man his life and nearly destroyed a modest, conscientious lawyer's career. "People like Atticus never bother about pride in their gifts," one character truly says about him. In this show, it's a lesson not quite clear enough on the juvenile level, which only attains clarity in retrospect.