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.