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Classic 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Graces Lesher Stage

Center REP production doesn't stray far from Harper Lee's great novel.

Harper Lee’s singular novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, springs to raw, exhilarating life on the Margaret Lesher Stage in Center REPertory Company’s latest production.

The stage adaptation, by Christopher Sergel, premiered in Monroeville, Atlanta, in 1990. But the Oscar-winning film, starring Gregory Peck, and the use of Lee’s book in countless schools throughout the world, leaves most audiences familiar with the play’s major themes: coming of age and racial injustice.

Atticus Finch is a lawyer in a small, southern community. When a black man is accused of raping a poor white girl, Finch is assigned the case and his two, young children are drawn into the ensuing tangle. It’s the 1930’s, when integration was barely a dream in the minds of unborn generations. The trial of the accused, Tom Robinson, opens the hearts and mouths of the town, revealing both hateful lies and thoughtless, wicked deeds.

It all sounds too grim, and it would be, except for the narrator, young Scout, whose spirit of redemption and justice is irrepressible. Accompanied by her older brother, Jem, and their summer companion, the exuberant, curious Dill, Scout supplies a steady dose of youthful idealism to counter the intolerant adult world.

Center Rep’s nimble cast pace, run and occasionally, fling themselves across Director Michael Butler’s sparse, threadbare set. Four railings first describe a neighborhood, then, in Act II, a court room. With minimal fuss and a cleverness that could be overlooked, Scenic Designer Melpomene Katakalos turns a coat hanger into a tree and an invisible “fourth wall” becomes the frightening Radley house.

Suzanne Irving  (Jean Louise Finch) is marvelous. Weaving seamlessly in and out of the action, she tells the story with charm, humor, courage and just enough hutzpah to make it plainly obvious: she is the young Scout, now grown. It’s a nuanced performance and half the reason the audience is on their feet for the final applause at the end of the evening.

Dan Hiatt (Atticus Finch) is distanced, underplayed, so it’s remarkable to find oneself deeply invested in his character’s struggles. Hiatt is familiar to Bay Area theater goers and his solid, sophisticated acting is on full display.

Olivia Lowe (Scout), Danny Christensen (Jem), and Hunter Milano (Dill) are a perfectly balanced trio. Lowe’s freshness, Christensen’s impeccable timing and Milano’s effervescent energy capture all the best aspects of children, and like all talented child actors, they make us forget the hard work and craft involved.

Lina Makdisi (Mayella Ewell) may have been handed a plum role as the alleged victim, but it is to her credit that she does not fumble the opportunity. From her trembling hands to her twisted, tortured ankles, Makdisi’s physical portrayal is both fearful and wonderful.

Butler, as the director, displays his ability by stepping aside. There’s no grandstanding: just Lee’s novel come to life. Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman and Sound Designer Will McCandless provide the same spare, delicate touch, allowing the powerful story to create its own drama.

Center REPertory Company’s To Kill a Mockingbird runs at the in Walnut Creek from April 5-April 30.

Lisa April 08, 2011 at 11:33 PM
I took my son to see the show on Sunday, the 3rd. He wasn't quite finished with the novel, and after watching this performance until before the intermission, I felt he was better off leaving than having a wonderful novel ruined with such a poor rendition. So, we left during the intermission. I have never left a show early before. I do not see how the three children were a "...perfectly balanced trio..." Dill was fine. But, Jem was not a very good actor in any way. Scout was passable, but no great shakes. Of course Atticus was good, we have enjoyed Dan Hiatt in many local performances. I realize it is hard to find good child actors for the ages Jem and Scout were in the novel. But, really, a high school student playing Jem? He was as tall as his "father!" And no way could an 8th grade girl pass for a 9 year old Scout. It just wasn't believable, even if the acting had been better. As for the "...novel come to life." If this was the actual script, then so much was cut, it would be better not to perform it at all. So many wonderful scenes in the book were not in the play. The importance of the dog scene was not emphasized at all. My son thought it was filler, not a pivotal part of how the children's view of their father changed. My son is now finishing the reading of the novel, and we will cap that off with watching the DVD with Gregory Peck (who the director, or producer of this version felt was wrong for the role!).
Peggy Spear April 09, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Thanks for your comments Lisa! I haven't seen it yet. Please tell your son that the movie version of the book was a disappointment to me -- and yet I still liked the movie! The book is just so good. I am a little afraid that TKAM staged would never live up to my own expectations. I still may see it, since I love Center REP and Lou liked it so well. But I have the same feeling about seeing "Water for Elephants." I am reading the book and love it, and don't want to be turned off.

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