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Rosalind Friedman/Ct Critics Circle To Kill A Mockingbird

THEATER CIRCUIT Hartford Stage

Adapting a classic whether it be a novel, play, film or television production, is always a challenge. The original is recalled with great affection and impossible to forget. Such could be the case of the current stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which has sold over 80 million copies since it was published in 1960. Christopher Sergel wrote the adaptation in 1970; it opened first in London, and has been produced since all over the United States. I had never seen it. The beloved film in 1962 won Oscars for Horton Foote for an adapted screen play and A Best Actor award for Gregory Peck. It is ironic and very sad that Mr, Foote died in Hartford last week at the age of 92; his daughter, the fine actress Hallie Foote, is the narrator, Jena Louise Finch, here. She should be awarded a badge of bravery for continuing to go on despite her tragedy. The same can be said for Devon Abner, Hallie’s husband who acquits himself well as the Prosecutor and Arthur Radley- Boo.

Saying all that, Michael Wilson, Artistic Director of the Hartford Stage, has made a brilliant choice in presenting this homespun story set against the prejudices of the deep South of the 1950’s. He has directed his large well-chosen cast with a delicate hand that underscores the humanity of the piece on an angled set divided by steps very well-designed by Jeff Cowie, and warmly lit by Rui Rita. David C. Wollard’s Costumes are so good, you don’t notice them. And, Wilson has found the perfect actor to portray Atticus Finch, the lawyer we all love.

Matthew Modine, tall, red-haired and handsome, is the embodiment of a father figure imbedded with youthfulness, transparency, and vulnerability without any trace of undue sentimentality. He moves fluidly, and is thoroughly convincing as Atticus, a widower with two high-spirited children. Modine establishes an excellent rapport with those children, Scout, a part Olivia Scott imbues with fierce clarity, and her older brother, Jem, acted with feistiness by Henry Hodges. Andrew Shipman is simply adorable as Dill, who is supposed to be Truman Capote as a little boy.

Judge Taylor, the dignified Nafe Katter, asks Atticus to take what seems like an impossible case: defending a black man, Tom Robinson (Douglas Lyons) in a rape case against a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Virginia Kull). Many of the townspeople are against him, turning vicious. We love the scene where Atticus explains to his children that he must pursue this case, or he would not be able to live with himself or with them. Effective is the time that to protect Tom, Atticus carries a standing lamp from his living room to the jail to light his newspaper reading. The courtroom scene is what we might expect, but done well, with Atticus optimistic against all odds, promising Tom an appeal after the verdict against him.

What makes this story so magical is the other theme, running through To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the fascination with Boo, a mysterious young man, who leaves talismans for Scout and Jem in the hollow of a tree and ultimately saves their lives.

To Kill a Mockingbird will play only through April 4 at Hartford Stage. If you can possible get a ticket, it is worth the journey. ####

Harper Lee is 82 years old.

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