To Kill a Mockingbird | Edison Theatre, St. Louis

play_mockingbird.jpgIt can’t be an easy task to mount a new theatrical adaptation of a work as beloved as To Kill a Mockingbird.






It can’t be an easy task to mount a new theatrical adaptation of a work as beloved as To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s tale of racial bigotry in the depression-era South and the dawning wisdom of the three children who experience it has so many iconic lines, characters and moments, that any version is going to come up against the audience’s individual experiences with the novel or the acclaimed 1962 film. The best way to approach the Metro Theater Company’s energetic but selective adaptation, running through January 18 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, is to mostly set aside one’s memories of the film and enjoy the play as an individualistic take on the story. It’s a generally earnest and stirring play that hits enough of its marks to leave a positive impression, even if not everything works.

The piece was adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel and directed by Carol North, who is celebrating her 31st year with Metro. What first greets your eyes as the play begins is the evocative staging, featuring four homes in the small, "tired old town" in Alabama where the story takes place. Later, two of the home facades revolve to produce the front of a courtroom and the holding cell where Atticus Finch goes to watch over Tom Robinson before his trial. These visual elements are quite effective, and Scenic Designer Dunsi Dai is probably due some of the credit for that. Soon we’re watching various townsfolk milling about, as young Scout (Emily Jackoway) and her brother Jem (Jimmy McEvoy) run around playing, quickly joined by summer neighbor Dill (Parker Donovan).

The adult version of Scout, in the form of "Jean Louise Finch" (Stephanie Strohman), is also on stage sharing her memories of the time. This was done through an effective voiceover in the movie; here it’s a tad distracting early on until you get used to it. Strohman came across uncannily like Mary Stuart Masterson’s "Idgie Threadgoode" in Fried Green Tomatoes, but this wasn’t a bad thing—merely one of the aspects of the play you have to warm to gradually. More immediately endearing was Jackoway’s turn as Scout (she’s alternating with another young actress in the role). Visually, Jackoway was flawless, and her line readings were appropriately loud, animated and true to the character of Scout. She seemed strongly anchored in the action, even if her timing was off a few times, also expected in a premiere performance. Donovan also was spirited and funny as Dill, getting a couple of big laughs and achieving consistency in his delivery. The same wasn’t quite true of McEvoy’s Jem; he seemed far more tentative, and although looking fine running across the stage with his smaller costars and pushing Scout around, there was something lacking in his performance this night. A dusty bit of blues harmonica (played onstage by a real musician) was obviously intended as era-appropriate ambience, but it went on at least five minutes too long, and distracted from the more important dialogue taking place.

Playgoers will likely have different reactions to the key role of Atticus Finch, here performed by veteran local actor and Metro Theater’s Resident Artist/Tech Director Nicholas Kryah. Although enunciating just fine and costumed effectively in Atticus-style attire, Kryah’s performance seemed rather uneven. It lacked the necessary warmth and gentleness of the character, and this isn’t because of unfair comparisons to Gregory Peck. It just felt off tonally, especially in early scenes with the children (you didn’t get a sense of the bond Atticus had with Scout and Jem) and in the confrontation with the lynch mob at the jail. When Atticus told Scout, after her disarming speech to Walter Cunningham about going to school with his son, that "Walter is okay inside…you made him stand in my shoes for a moment," it simply didn’t ring true; the character never convinced us that there’d been any real threat, or that he was bothered at all by the kids showing up at the jail like this. And although better in his courtroom scenes, Kryah laughed inappropriately at one point, something I doubt Atticus would do in such a highly charged situation. Some of these things may be ironed out in subsequent performances, but I found them bothersome on opening night.

More effective in smaller roles were Bobbie Williams as a terrific Calpurnia, a genuinely edgy outing by Susan Arnold Marks as Mayella Ewell, and Dominic Richardson’s poignant turn as Tom Robinson. And although only having a few key lines, Jeffrey Awada was strong as Sheriff Heck Tate. The adaptation effectively avoids mere depictions of key scenes—although many are there (the scene with the mad dog, Bob Ewell confronting Atticus, the aforementioned scene at the jail), large chunks of dialogue differ from the movie, and the staging finds its own rhythm. The pacing is brisk, in fact, and never boring. A few anachronistic elements jar here and there (what was that court reporter wearing?), but considering the challenges that North and her cast were up against, they’re to be commended for creating a lively and enjoyable, if inconsistent, adaptation of this classic work. And somewhere in the audience, Mary Badham herself (Scout in the 1962 film), in town for the premiere and a weekend of special events, was surely smiling. | Kevin Renick

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through January 18; contact the Edison Theatre at 314-935-6543 for ticket info.

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