Leave it to The Rep to keep pushing the boundaries of what a local theatre company can achieve.
An iconic theatre pays homage to another icon as The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis stages Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in the South during the 1930s, the story tackles complex issues such as race relations, rape, the class system, and gender roles. While I would love to say how we as a society have advanced leaps and bounds in rectifying the sins of our society’s past, sadly it is proven time and time again that the more things change the more they stay the same. The Rep’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird is remarkable in how it handles each of these tangled issues with love, respect, and courage, leaving no emotional stone unturned—no matter how painful.
Narrated by Jean Louise Finch (Lenne Klingaman)—an older version of Scout—the story is set in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama. Scout (Kaylee Ryan) and her older brother Jem (Ronan Ryan) live with their widowed father Atticus Finch (Jonathan Gillard Daly). Atticus is an attorney who has been assigned a case in which an African-American man, Tom Robinson (Terrell Donnell Sledge), has been accused of physically abusing and raping a local girl, Mayella Ewell (Rachel Fenton).
Scout and Jem befriend Dill (Charlie Mathis) who is staying with his Aunt Rachel for the summer. The three children spend their days speculating about their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley (Christopher Harris). Their images of man become almost legendary as local rumors have made the man out to be a monster.
Being the moral compass of his family, Atticus attempts to shield and protect his children from the societal fallout caused from his participation in the court case. He reminds his children that even though their friends may disagree with his actions, they are still their friends. Remarkable words that ring true even in today’s political climate.
Atticus does his best to prove Tom’s innocence as well as expose the real criminal, but this is 1930s Alabama, and no African-American man had ever won a court case against a caucasian man. The fallout from the trial affects everyone—some for the better, some for the worse—but the characters ultimately realize these events will serve as a catalyst for a step in the right direction for equality.
Trigger warning: As I have made clear, this show is set in the deep South during the 30s. The dialogue within the show is authentic. Be forewarned, racial slurs are used throughout.
The performances in this production of To Kill a Mockingbird are arresting. Daly’s performance as Atticus was inspired. He completely embraced his role and gave his performance an overwhelming sense of authenticity. He commanded the stage with his own brand of gentle power as he had me hanging on his every word. Daly’s flawless performance was a perfect salute to the Rep’s 50th anniversary.
Giving him a run for his money was child actor Mathis in the role of Dill. Being both precocious and mature is a hard combination to pull off, but Mathis did an exemplary job in his role. Other words I could use to describe his performance are charming, believable, and endearing. This is a young actor to watch, St. Louis—his star is definitely on the rise.
While Kaylee had moments where she slayed the crowd with her own brand of charm and wit, both she and her twin brother Ronan came off as a bit stiff. A bit more inflection in their delivery would have benefited both of them. But then again, I have massive respect for all three child actors, as they took on daunting roles with incredible amounts of dialogue to execute.
Klingaman, as the narrator, did an outstanding job as she drifted around the stage. Her delivery reminded me of all my Southern girlfriends as her drawl was infectious. Rounding out the rest of the talented performances was Tanesha Gary as Calpernia, Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Dubose, and the “Community” which included Miriam Dance, Melissa Harris, Alicia Revé Like, Jason J. Little, and Felicia Rogers. Gary was formidable as the Finch’s housekeeper, Darlow brought the house down with her rapid-fire insults, and the community members served negro spiritual realness as they filled the hall with their heavenly voices.
Director Risa Brainin created a world I was fascinated to watch unfold. Her talented technical team excelled in each of their disciplines. Devon Painter’s costumes reeked of authenticity, Lightning Director Michael Klaers set the mood of each scene perfectly with his precision lighting, and Narelle Sissons deserves some kind of award for her mind-blowing scenic design. The stage seemed to be a living, breathing entity as the actors moved around the props in a very clever and seamless fashion. And then there was the tree that dominated the stage. Truly a spectacle to be seen, this tree was a mechanical masterpiece. Leave it to The Rep to keep pushing the boundaries of what a local theatre company can achieve.
In the production, Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That quote affected me the first time I heard it in my teenage years, and it still knocks the wind out of me today. As a theatre reviewer and a lover of the theatre, I am grateful to The Rep for allowing St. Louis to have the ability to walk around in other people’s shoes for the last 50 years. The Rep is a vital and necessary part of the St. Louis theatre scene, and I am thrilled to see where they go in the next 50. Congratulations on an amazing show, an amazing season, and an amazing legacy.| Jim Ryan
To Kill a Mockingbird runs at The Rep through March 5. For ticket information, visit http://www.repstl.org/.
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.