Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
To Kill a Mockingbird
Since then I've seen several stage productions of Christopher Sergel's adaptation, valiant and heartfelt attempts to replicate the book's effect on an entire nation. However, none succeeded to the extent that the current production at 6th Street Playhouse doesit's a triumph, a definite cut above the others, combining thoughtful understanding of the book and script with effective staging and stirring music to deliver Lee's timeless message, yet againhopefully for new generations as well as my own.
Sergel's adaptation follows Lee's literary device of memory, placing pre-teen Scout (Cecilia Brenner) as the protagonist, remembered by her adult self Jean Louise (Ellen Rawley), who provides narrative for the events, her dialogue closely excerpted from the book. Scout, her older brother Jem (Mario Giani Herrera), and friend Dill (Liev Bruce-Low) spend the summer of 1936 in their small Alabama town enjoying their usual mischiefs, being reprimanded by housekeeper Calpurnia (Val Sinckler) and kept in line by widowed father, attorney Atticus (Jeff Coté). But their lives and the town are turned upside down by the drama of a triallocal black man Tom Robinson (Jordán Olivier-Verdé) is accused of raping white woman Mayella Ewell (Caitlin Strom-Martin), and Atticus has been enlisted to defend him.
The play's action unfolds in three sections: pre-trial, with town troubles and threatening mobs mixed in with the children's attempts to amuse themselves; the trial itself, showing the deep divisions in town opinion and Atticus' courageous attempt to change history; and the aftermath, where the illusion of normalcy is laid bare by a festering vein of hate. Through it all, Scout learns abiding lessons from observing her fatherhis struggles, his patience, his urging that she "walk in another's shoes" before judging.
Some of the politics seem at best naive, at worst dated, no longer relevant to our volatile times. In a new adaptation of the book currently playing Broadway, Atticus appears to be depicted as too tolerant, too ready to see good in all people regardless of their opinions. But the lesson he imparts to his children, holding up empathy as the key to eliminating prejudice, still stands tall, ringing true for the ages.
Director Marty Pistone has cast the production extremely well, eliciting strong performances from the entire ensemble. Coté as Atticus strikes the right notes of fatherly concern and town conscience, optimism battling realism as he fights the good fight. His hope for the future and the lessons he imparts shine with simple clarity, not overacted or lionized. The three children are thankfully real childrenseasoned performers, yes, but genuine and believable, without artifice.
Sinckler as Calpurnia is as delightful as she is strong, with looks to put any errant child in fear. Mike Pavone does an outstanding turn as villain Bob Ewell, authentic and utterly believable. Other standouts include Tom Glynn as affable Sheriff Tate, Nicholas Augusta as Reverend Sykes, and Al Kaplan as the put-upon Judge, taking their own steps to fight injustice.
Scenic design by Alayna Klein establishes the small town of Maycomb with minimal and attractive set pieces that quickly transform to a courtroom and more. The overall effect is aided by April George's lighting design and sound design by Albert Casselhoff, as well as excellent period costuming by Julia Kwitchoff. A brilliant stroke in this production is the addition of original music written for the show by Branice McKenzie, performed by a talented onstage quintet. It becomes a powerful emotional element. Director Pistone has also kept the pace moving as quickly as possible, given the languor inherent in the script; it's a crisp two and a-half hours.
Given that there is a new adaptation now, it is likely that Sergel's adaptation will be seen less and less often, if everits literary underpinning may consign it to play readings rather than stagings. But this production has discovered an abiding heart in the script, one that deserves to be experienced and seen again. Perhaps it will renew your love of the story and its impact on your heart, as it did mine.
To Kill a Mockingbird, through May 19, 2019, at 6th Street Playhouse, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA. Tickets $25.00-$35.00 can be purchased online at 6thstreetplayhouse.com or by phone at 707-523-4185 ext. 1