The Playhouse Square touring production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ prevails
The year was 1963 and I was ten years old when my father took me to the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio to see the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird” that was based on his favorite book. This was unlike our usual movie outings that consisted of the four of us (mom, dad, brother and myself) piling into the station wagon with a picnic dinner to catch a double feature at the drive-in. This time it was just dad and me going to a real downtown movie theater.
My father felt it was time for me to be exposed to a true mature movie experience and one I would recall for the rest of my life. I remember the usher taking us to our assigned seats and the plush grandeur of the theater. Just as Atticus Finch would give life lessons to Jem and Scout so did my father do the same for me. I credit this single movie experience with my hippy desire to work for social reform as well as my accepting others that were in various ways different from me. Thank you father.
It was with a powerful feeling of deja vu that nearly 50 years later I found myself entering the Connor Palace to see the touring Broadway production of the same work.
It begins with Scout (Melanie Moore) and Jem (Justin Mark) telling their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) about a vicious attack against them that resulted in Jem being knocked unconscious and his arm broke while Scout was protected from harm by a ham costume that she had worn for a school pageant. They surmise that the attack was the result of the recent trial.
Their father Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) is a civil attorney in Maycomb, Alabama (a town so small that everyone knows your business and is ready to share it). Judge Taylor (Richard Poe) has asked Atticus to defend Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) a black man falsely accused of raping and assaulting a white girl. For reasons not put forth it will be a jury trial made up of farmers brought in from surrounding counties. In spite of the challenges (the girl’s father is a member of the KKK and the sheriff seems partial to their cause) Atticus agrees to take the case because he believes in the system of justice.
By taking on this capital case Atticus unwittingly makes his family and their friend targets of the community’s wrath as Scout, Jem and Dill try to work out who their allies and enemies actually are. Also involved is Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the family’s black retainer who with the death of Atticus’ wife years ago has had a major hand in raising not only the children but the father as well.
The courtroom scenes get wholly dramatic as Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) and his apple not far from the tree daughter Mayella (Arianna Gayle Stucki) rant and rave making one think that the Civil War is simply at an intermission. Meanwhile, Atticus attempts to teach Scout, Jem and Dill to “live in the skin of their enemies” in order to understand them. This includes neighbors who attempt to break Tom from the jail and lynch him which is a hard sell for the children.
There are many standouts in this production first and foremost are the three children, Melanie Moore (Scout), Justin Mark (Jem) and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill) who work impeccably together. Johnson’s dry wit is a wonder to behold. Richard Thomas embodies Atticus Finch while never overplaying the part. Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia is the voice of reason who notes the obvious when those around her have no clue. Joey Collins (Bob Ewell) and Arianna Gayle Stucki (Mayella Ewell) give spirited performances of characters you love to hate. The same is true of Mary Badham (Mrs. Henry Dubose) played by the original Scout actor in the movie whose acid tongue and disposition could curdle milk at twenty paces. Anthony Natalie as Link Deas the deaf town “drunk” who is simply anti-social but honest with the children when they question him.
The secret to this show’s success is in the casting by Adam Caldwell and Destiny Lilly. Secondly, the show abounds in gentle humor that is consistent throughout in spite of the dour story line. Special recognition also goes to Aaron Sorkin who took a classic book and movie and improved it with a balance of humor and drama. Director Bartlett Sher takes what could be a dramatic marathon but with a sped up pace makes the time past effortlessly.
Costumes by Ann Roth are timely and pertinent and the scenic design by Miriam Buether are believable and quickly changed. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design cover a wide range of feels from summer porch afternoon, night time, airy courtroom and jail frontage. The sound design by Scott Lehrer conquered the vast area that is the Connor Palace with crisp dialogue reaching every far flung corner. The back ground music by Kimberly Grigsby while subtle added to the theatrical experience. Lastly, the use of southern accents is done with restraint so that the dialogue is natural and flowing.
Make no mistake about it this is one of the best examples of dramatic live theater as you will find anywhere in spite of the long run time of two hours and forty five minutes plus a fifteen minute intermission. Because of the high quality of the performance the time flies by remarkably fast.
The racial injustice theme of “To Kill a Mockingbird” seems ripped right out of today’s headlines yet its message still shines brightly that hate might still be overcome through the use of common sense, common decency, common courtesy with a healthy dose of humor as taught to our children. This is a show that is universally relatable. Scout it out.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” will be on stage in the Connor Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square through May 15, 2022. For more information and tickets go to https://www.playhousesquare.org/ or call (216) 241-6000.