To Kill A Mockinbird

By Geary Danihy

It’s difficult to gauge whether or not To Kill a Mockingbird the current offering of The Hartford Stage, “works” as a play.

It may well be that what we are seeing is simply a series of vignettes, held together by the lyrical reminiscences of the now grown Jean Louise Finch (Hallie Foote), nicknamed Scout as a child, as well as by the audience’s strong memories of the novel by Harper Lee, from which the play has been adapted by Christopher Sergel, and the memorable 1962 film that starred Gregory Peck.

Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird really isn’t, technically, a play, but if so it really doesn’t matter, for whatever the source of your memories of Harper Lee’s story, it’s all up there on the stage, beautifully performed by an excellent cast and directed by the Stage’s artistic director, Michael Wilson, with a strong, knowing hand.

Rich with characterizations and touching, memorable scenes, To Kill a Mockingbird is primarily the story of young Scout (Olivia Scott), the headstrong young girl with a host of questions and a raft of opinions, and her father, Atticus (Matthew Modine), a small-town lawyer saddled with defending a black man, Tom Robinson (Douglas Lyons), who has been charged with raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell (Virginia Kull).

The role of Atticus is, of course, key to the story, and Modine does a fine job of creating a moral man and loving father who gently yet firmly guides Scout and her brother, Jem (Henry Hodges), on the bumpy, often troublesome road towards maturity. Giving a very controlled, thoughtful performance, Modine ably projects both the warmth and human understanding and the strength of character that are the essence of Atticus Finch.

Equally central to the story is young Scout, and in what must be considered a casting coup by Telsey + Company, Scott delivers a scintillating performance, full of edginess and woven with mood swings that bring the character of young Scout to vivid life. The young actress makes the character her own and whatever memories you might have of Scout, drawn from either novel or film, are soon forgotten, replaced by Scott’s sprightly, endearing performance.

In fact, there are many wise casting decisions evident in this production, for Hodges does a commendable turn as Scout’s older, protective brother and Andrew Shipman nails the fussy, precocious Dill (the character Lee based on a young Truman Capote).

The trial of Tom Robinson is the emotional center of the production, and it is here that Kull, as Mayella, gives a riveting performance as she delivers her testimony. Caught in an obvious lie and becoming enraged, in a desperate, fear-filled moment she draws on the darkest aspects of Southern prejudice to protect herself, her eyes wild, her words spit out like tiny, poisonous darts as her father, Bob Ewell (Mike Boland) looks on.

By this time, Ewell has already had his turn in the witness chair, and Boland, in both this scene and previous ones, gives the audience its money’s worth, for he is both conniving and despicable, his swagger and bravado palpable. Equally strong is Lyons turn on the stand in the character Tom, a black man charged with the ultimate crime whose humanity shines through, making his fate all the more tragic.

If there is anything to complain about in this substantial, satisfying production it might be Foote’s delivery of the framing reminiscences, for instead of offering them as if speaking from a warm, enfolding dream, she gives a strident edge to the memories that seems out of sync with the proceedings.

It’s a minor point that takes little away from the overall enjoyment of a trip back in time to a place that is well entrenched in all of our minds, a place of dark mysteries, small wonders and simple joys that is nicely captured by Jeff Cowie in his open, thrust-stage set dominated in the center by a tree with arching branches, a fluid set that is enhanced by Rui Rita’s lighting design. One might kvetch a bit about John Gromada’s music and sound design, which at times seems to draw on B-Grade movie score clichés, but again, it’s a minor point.

The Sunday matinee audience I was a part of was composed of young and old, and all seemed to walk away well satisfied. This rich production offers something for everyone, especially young folks who might never have had the opportunity to attend live theater. They will be riveted and also perhaps inspired by the performances of Scott, Hodges and Shipman to consider trying out for a role in their next school play.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through Saturday, April 4. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or going to www.hartfordstage.org.

This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.

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