In Christopher Sergel’s dramatization of Harper Lee’s ground-shaking novel, the entire audience becomes the jury—sitting in judgment of nigger Tom Robinson (Dion Johnstone, whose courtroom scene drives Susan H. Schulman’s production to emotional heights that can’t be matched before or after). He’s been charged with the rape of Mayella Ewell (Dayna Tekatch oozes unrepentant hate, fuelled by shame, that wouldn’t be out of place if she ever plays Karla Homolka). But it seems that Mayella has the taste for beyond-the-“code” black meat, and is caught kissing and clutching the too-naïve-by-half Tom when her drunkard father, Robert E. Lee Ewell (Wayne Best infuses the role with copious amounts of all-too-believable menace and gall) arrives home unexpectedly.
Daddy Ewell wants nothing more than Tom’s death so that he can feel avenged and go back to being the exclusive molester of his teenage daughter. In 1935 small-town Alabama, what’s so wrong about that?
Still, unlike speedy justice meted out with sickening regularity by the Ku Klux Klan, Tom will go on trial. His lawyer is Maycomb’s mild-mannered, champion of social justice, Atticus Finch (veteran Peter Donaldson), who knows that his chances for acquittal are virtually non-existent from a jury (all male, of course) drawn from a population that’s “not fighting Yankees [but] fighting our friends.”
Much of the play is filtered through Finch’s tomboy daughter (Abigail Winter-Culliford) and her decades-later self as the on-stage narrator (Michelle Giroux, perhaps a touch too far-removed from the events unfolding around her). Sibling Jem (Thomas Murray) and summertime friend Dill (engaging at every turn is the bespectacled Spencer Walker) serve to represent the innocence of the next generation.
But nobody’s innocent, including Tom. Fed up with the system’s tortoise-slow pace towards granting any sort of appeal, the despondent prisoner is driven to escape captivity (and probable execution). While scaling the fence (another one-arm miracle in itself), his muscular frame is riddled with 17 bullets—one has to be sure about these things.
The intensity of To Kill a Mockingbird (especially now, when racial/social/sexual profiling travesties still abound: bullying without borders) boils over in the closing moments, but more in the seats than on stage. The predominantly whitebread audience seethes in horror when “their” verdict comes back “guilty,” only to forgive themselves collectively by jumping as one to award Tom a standing ovation (this in no way downplays this actor’s obvious talent). How interesting it would be in a future production to reverse the cast and have the whites play black and vice versa. Would we, the jury, feel the same remorse? Would the black majority understand differently how their systemic oppressors played fast and loose with the truth?
And then of course, the title might well become To Kill a Finch. JWR