Production maintains character

The theatrical production of To Kill A Mockingbird, an adaptation written by Christopher Sergel, directed by Michael Cooper and presented by the Sierra Madre Playhouse, maintains the original integrity of the book.

Though the novel was published more than 50 years ago, novelist Harper Lee’s message to see beyond appearances is as powerful as ever. Sergel and Cooper’s adaptation remains generally faithful to Lee’s storyline.

The novel thrives on endless details of small town life that present a grander picture by the story’s end. And the play adroitly translates the most important aspects of the novel to the stage.

The first page of Lee’s novel projected onto a large screen as audience members take to their seats. Once the lights dim, Maudie Atkinson (Diane Kelber), the Finches’ neighbor, walks out to remove the mock page and begin narrating the play.

Unlike the novel, which is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, the story’s young female protagonist, Maudie narrates the play through occasional asides to the audience. As opposed to Scout, who allowed readers to perceive the events from an innocent child’s perspective, Maudie’s narration is mature and pithy, giving the play a slightly different feel.

The stage was constructed to resemble the Finch family’s neighborhood in Maycomb, complete with Scout’s porch swing set and Boo Radley’s, Maycomb’s mysterious recluse, formidable front door. At times, the set seems too crowded to accommodate all of the actors at once, especially during the courtroom climax.  In a sense, however, this clutter succeeds in evoking the smothered feel of a sweltering Southern town rife with social and racial tension.

The chemistry between cast members gives credibility to their portrayal of a town whose citizens know each other all too well. Many of the performances stand out as fine representations of Lee’s complex characters, especially those of Atticus Finch (Christian Lebano) and May Ella Ewell (Lindsay Faye Wagner).

In what is arguably one of the most heated courtroom scenes, the climax of To Kill A Mockingbird occurs during the trial of Tom Robinson. For those who haven’t read the novel, Robinson is a black man accused of raping May Ella, a white woman.  Naturally, this causes a social uprising in the generally prejudiced Southern town of Maycomb. Here, Atticus and May Ella beautifully deliver their memorable monologues.

Atticus is an honorable lawyer who stands up for what he knows is right in an attempt to set an example for his children and to encourage his town to question its perspective. Lebano pulls off the character effortlessly, portraying Atticus as a man with an inherent nobility yet tender kindness. Atticus’ famous speech in Tom’s defense sends chills down the viewer’s spine; there were audible sniffles in the crowd as Lebano recited the words that define what it means to see beyond black and white.

This pivotal scene manipulates stage direction to evoke emotion as Atticus often faces the audience when he delivers his final appeal. This conscious effort to include the audience members pulls them on stage, making them feel like they’re sitting on the jury. Though innovative, this production decision can also make the audience feel it is being blamed for the trial’s inevitable decision, an effect that is compelling and simultaneously off-putting.

As for May Ella, Wagner represents the character’s inner conflict beautifully; when the lines call for defiance toward Atticus, her anger toward her abusive father is clear. Likewise, her visible bitter anguish at being caught in between social classes makes the audience pity her.

Other standout performances include Brighid Fleming’s precocious Scout, Robert Manning, Jr.’s defeated yet dignified Tom Robinson and Tara Thomas’s compassionate Calpurnia.

Harper Lee’s compelling story about the loss of innocence and the duality of human nature will be performed on weekends at Sierra Madre Playhouse until Nov. 12.