Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

To Kill a Mockingbird
Guthrie Theater

Also see Arty's coverage of the 11th Annual Ivey Awards, and reviews of Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue and A Lie of the Mind


Baylen Thomas, Regina Marie Williams, Noah Deets, Mary Bair, and Isaac Leer
This would seem to be the right year for To Kill a Mockingbird to be mounted at the Guthrie for the first time. The play is an adaption by Christopher Sergel based on Harper Lee's widely beloved 1960 book, and the Guthrie's production follows by two months the release of Lee's only other known novel, "Go Set a Watchman," bringing a new wave of attention to Mockingbird. Moreover, the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to perceived racially based miscarriages of justice makes the bones of To Kill a Mockingbird as timely and relevant as news coverage of a Black Lives Matter protest held last Sunday in St. Paul.

Before going further, I want to underscore the fact that when a play is this richly told, laden with marvelous characters, abundant in wisdom and beautifully staged there is never a wrong year for it. That it feels like a response to news, both on the street and in the publishing world, is fortuitous, but believe me, this production stands alone as a wonderful work of theater.

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in mid-1930s Alabama, set in the town of Maycomb, a stand-in for Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville. Drawn largely from events in her own childhood, Lee created the characters of three white children through whose eyes we understand the burdens of poverty, ignorance, Jim Crow laws, and the unwritten code that dictates acceptable behavior within and among social strata. The children are Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, ages 6-9 in the course of the play; her older brother Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch; and their young friend Charles Baker "Dill" Harris, presumed to be based on Truman Capote, who was actually a childhood friend of Ms. Lee.

Atticus Finch, widowed father of Jem and Scout, is raising his children with the aid of loyal housekeeper Calpurnia. Atticus is a lawyer who challenges the norms of Jim Crow, noting the lack of justice in the treatment of black community members. He is determined to live by his own principles, and to instill those in his children. When he is assigned by the court to defend a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman, he accepts knowing he will be the subject of his neighbors' derision, and that his children will be taunted by other children who have absorbed their parents' deeply held racism.

The plot revolves around how Scout, Jem, and Dill make sense of the schism between Atticus' principles and their community's values. The extended trial scene, in particular, demonstrates with riveting force the face-off between evidence and belief. This is juxtaposed with the children's speculation about their reclusive neighbor Arthur "Boo" Radley, inflaming their imaginations with notions of a monster, unchallenged by direct experience. They also struggle to abide the mean-spirited rantings of another neighbor, aging and ill Mrs. Dubose. Two other neighbors complete Scout and Jem's immediate stomping grounds, Miss Stephanie Crawford, who tends to go along with whatever is the popular thinking, and Miss Maudie Atkinson, who is much more an independent thinker who keenly appreciates the children's innocent view of all the adult troubles in the world.

The book is framed as a remembrance by the adult Scout, some twenty some years after the events. Sergel's first theatrical adaptation put adult Scout on stage as a narrator. The Guthrie's production uses Sergel's more recent adaptation, in which Miss Maudie Atkinson serves as narrator. Maudie's leanings are in alignment with the Finch's, so if a narrator's voice slants the action, hers would be in keeping with Scout's, which in turn can be presumed to be the vantage point of Harper Lee herself. In any case, adding a narrator allows Sergel to condense much of the novel's narrative.

Die-hard fans of the book may miss some of their favorite scenes. Certain short-cuts, such as leaving out a gripping scene where Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to Sunday services at her black church, representing it with a brief scene of the church choir paying calls to members, may feel like slights to Lee's work. A key character in the book, Atticus's opinionated sister, does not appear on stage. However, the meaning behind missing scenes and characters are maintained in Sergel's adaptation, so that the great message and heart of To Kill a Mockingbird remains clear and strong on stage.

Baylen Thomas portrays Atticus Finch with the steadiness, solemnity, and generosity we associate with the character. Thomas, who is making his first appearance in the Twin Cities, has appeared on Broadway and has southern bonafides by way of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Excellent throughout, he particularly shines when Atticus interacts with the children, taking a stern tone as needed while at the same time making it clear how dearly he loves them. The all-important children's roles are double cast. The trio I saw—Mary Bair as Scout, Noah Deets as Jem, and Isaac Leer as Dill—are all three terrific. They project themselves to be real kids, not saints-in-training, struggling to be just as grown up as possible under the strain of their limited experience. Deets presents Jem's assumption of the older, wiser big brother role, though he also is subject to youthful loss of control. Leer reveals Dill's tenderness under his outer show of bravado. Miss Bair as Scout is a real, not idealized, child, who is by turns stubborn, charitable, curious, and mischievous, and always smart as a whip.

In a company where every cast member brings powerful acting chops to the occasion, two others stand out. Ansa Akyea's characterization of the accused rapist, Tom Robinson, informs us of the man's dignity and moral fiber, even as his very life is at stake. Ashley Rose Montondo plays his accuser, Mayella Ewell, imbedding her character with diffidence and scorn borne of ignorance, poverty, and the oppression to which she has been subjected both by her community and within her own family. Other notable performances include Regina Marie Williams as Calpurnia, Bruce Bohne as Bob Ewell, Candace Barrett Birk as Mrs. Dubose, Peter Thompson as Judge Taylor, Dustin Bronson as Mr. Walter Cunningham, and Stacia Rice as Miss Maudie Atkinson.

With many moving parts, a large cast, and compelling narrative, director John Miller-Stephany maintains a fluid atmosphere that builds tension and finds the heartache and hope in Mockingbird.

Tech credits are all up to the Guthrie's usual high bar. The beautiful set design by James Youmans captures the sultriness of Alabama, with branches of Spanish moss dripping down from overhead, and gingerbread porches gracing the house fronts. The courtroom setting rises from the Guthrie's pit, as if the mechanisms of justice have somehow been buried in the earth. Marcus Dilliard's lighting design expresses moods and the passage of time, and is especially effective in a key thunderstorm scene. That scene also benefits from Scott W. Edwards' sound design, which also provides us with the sweet songs of the mockingbird. Mathew J. LeFebvre has designed exquisite costumes that embody each character's position in the community. Even the shoes project the time and place, as in the footwear worn in the opening scene by Miss Stephanie Crawford and Miss Maudie Atkinson.

I am one of the few people in the known universe who has never seen the famed movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Until recently, I had not read the book either, but I did read it just before attending the current Guthrie production. I now join the legions who love the book, and cherish its central characters. The Guthrie has brought to the stage a beautifully realized presentation of the great book. It pares down the original's plot, but maintains its fullness of heart and depth of wisdom.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage through October 18, 2015. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $29.00 to $74.00. Seniors (62+), Students (with ID), Military and Children's discounts available. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Writer: Christopher Sergel; Based on the book by: Harper Lee; Director: Jon Miller-Stephany; Set Design: James Youmans; Costume Design: Matthew J. LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Movement Coach: Randy Reyes; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Choir Director: Sanford More; Stage Manager: Chris A. Code; Assistant Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Director: Peggy O'Connell; Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, LTD; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound); Fight Captain: Dustin Bronson; Interns: Tierra K. Anderson (Stage Management), Jessica Johnson (literary)

Cast: Ansa Akyea (Tom Robinson), Mary Bair *(Jean Louise "Scout" Finch), Candace Barrett Birk (Mrs. Dubose), Jennifer Blagen (Miss Stephanie Crawford), Bruce Bohne (Bob Ewell), Michael Booth (Arthur "Boo" Radley), Dustin Bronson (Mr. Walter Cunningham), Chris Carlson (Heck Tate), J.C. Cutler (Nathan Radley/Court Clerk), Bob Davis (Mr. Gilmer), Noah Deets * (Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch), Isaac Leer* (Charles Baker "Dill" Harris), Joel Liestman (Third Man), Ashley Rose Montondo (Mayella Ewell), T. Michael Rambo (Reverend Sykes), Lorenzo Reyes* (Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch), Stacia Rice (Miss Maudie Atkinson), Isadora Swann* (Jean Louise "Scout" Finch), Baylen Thomas (Atticus Finch), Peter Thomson (Judge Taylor), Nate Turcotte* (Charles Baker "Dill" Harris), Regina Marie Williams (Calpurnia).

* alternate performances

Citizens of Maycomb: Alison Anderson, Comfort Dolo, Penelope Freeh, Billy Gleason, Michael Hertenstein, Kiara Jackson, Robin Johnson, Aida Morris, Darrick Mosley, Alec Nicholson, J.P. Noland, Grant Ruckheim, Emmanuel Woods.


- Arthur Dorman


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