No matter how many times To Kill a Mockingbird is staged, no matter who takes on the demanding roles—particularly the three children and the philosophical honest defence lawyer—the power of its message never fails to move thinking people to tears and present-day bullies to nervous laughs that sound as false as their owners’ belief in fairness and equality for all.
Fortunately, a new Road Less Traveled production has begun its three-week run at the Studio Arena Theatre. In the horrific wake of the ravages of alcohol on unsuspecting innocent First Nation mockingbirds in the Yellow Quill reserve, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel (adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel) is more than worth another look by Niagara’s well-served theatergoers or an initial experience by those young enough to wonder how the cauldron of ignorance and fear could ever boil over in “civilized” society. (Happy to report so many pre-teen faces learning more about their elders than they bargained for on opening night.)
Of course, like programming such well-known, much-loved classics as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the director takes on both a huge risk and enormous challenge. In his regional theatre début, Scott Behrend has crafted a credible, detail-rich production that bodes well for his future and Buffalo’s vibrant arts scene. Following the marvellous opening credits as most of the cast parade across Troy Hourie’s efficient and effective set (accompanied by some Deliverance-like music that never gets a bow), Act I takes a few scenes to settle into its flow. Then the time vanishes as the back-story is filled in, leading to just a glimpse of Tom Robinson (Dee LaMonte Perry brings his own brand of innocence and honesty that pays off stunningly in the climax, where his fate is reported but never seen) on the eve of his trial for the trumped-up charge of having “carnal knowledge of a female by force.”
Act II’s courtroom drama has first-rate pace and conviction from gavel to gavel. Before intermission, the plot revolves around the good folks of fictional small-town Maycomb, Alabama—in particular four simple residences on the white side of the tracks. It is here that widower Atticus Finch (superb effort by Doug Zschiegner) lives when not defending the poor (tellingly, paid on one accession by a bag of hickory nuts). His two kids call him Atticus because Jem (Cory Grzechowiak accomplishes the dual task of delivering a convincing performance and keeping his young colleagues on track) and Scout (Faith Sheehan takes many leads from her older brother). The family is herded, watered and fed by longtime servant Calpurnia (Verneice Turner serves up this important role with spot-on tone and understanding). She lives amongst her people’s oppressors by virtue of a job.
Next door is the personification of learned hatred; intransigently passed down in the personage of old-fart extraordinaire, Mrs. Dubose (Arlene Clement spews her venomous lines with well-acted conviction). Across the way are the Radleys: Father and son lead an existence of jailer/prisoner since young Arthur (known as Boo to the nosy neighbours) impaled his dad with scissors a few decades back.
Not far off is the never-seen Aunt Rachel, but it’s to her house that Dill (Joseph Westphal) finds himself in the summer of discontent that erupts into death, injury and injustice as the alleged rape-case comes to trial.
And here’s the brilliance: The tradition for after-dinner “men talk” (er, white of course, how the black community communicates never comes into play) revolves around the homestead. On hot summer nights, should a friend or neighbour stroll by or purposely arrive for a visit, the chat must take place at close quarters on the porch, in comfortable seats, perhaps accompanied by a beverage or some form of tobacco. But when the stellar citizens of Maycomb get wind that Atticus Finch is defending a despicable nigger (no matter that the evidence pointed to a father/daughter cover-up based on the lesser of evils and the unthinkable shame a nineteen-year-old girl having the hots for forbidden flesh—Greg Natale and Cassie Gorniewicz devoured their lines a little on the strident side but a few more performances will likely reach a better balance), any conversation with the truth monger has to take place standing face-to-face in the front yard: public castigation of a different kind.
And the front yard is the very spot that the desks for counsel, the accused and the witness box are placed. Metaphor indeed. The one-on-one insults of the first act now emanate from the same intolerance that’s a relic of the past and could never happen today.
The other conceit is that the audience becomes the jury; when the verdict is returned the gasps can be heard all around. Do your duty: go and judge for yourself. JWR