When students study To Kill a Mockingbird in school, few have the benefit of an English teacher who sets the stage as well as Geva’s Literary Director and Dramaturg, Jenni Werner. Yet even without her rich prose tying Harper Lee’s background, and the history of an Alabama suffering from the post-dust bowl, post-market crash, Depression Era poverty, we sense a community ripe with suffering and pent-up anger in Geva Theatre Center’s production. The play is based on Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and it has been adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel.
The story is told from the perspective of both the young tomboy “Scout,” (portrayed by the talented and spunky Alden Duserick*), and her grownup self who has stepped into her given name, Jean Louise Finch. Through this juxtaposition, we see the story unfold through the innocence, yet wise perception, of the young Scout, while the grownup Louise’s narrative (played smartly by Brigitt Markusfeld) adds “music” to the story … underscoring the plot with ambiance and intrigue, without altering characters or context.
Under Mark Cuddy’s always-masterful direction, the story unfolds as languidly as the summer in which it takes place, yet engages immediately. It is a rich, multi-layered coming of age tale that examines how societal ills erode the fabric of humanity.
Without exception, the actors “step into the shoes” of their characters, giving memorable and remarkable performances. Even the disturbed Boo Radley (Sean Patrick Reilly), who spends only a few brief minutes on stage, permeates the play, first with his absence, and then, with his presence. Geva’s Artist in Residence Skip Greer plays Atticus Finch, the deeply ethical attorney who takes on the town when he takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. As the weathered, single father who struggles against poverty, works to raise his children to be thoughtful and moral people, and is adamant about seeing the good in mankind, Greer gives a performance that is sublime and textured.
Also of particular note are the performances of Nora Cole as the loving, yet dictatorial Calpurnia, Nicholas Kinney as Scout’s brother Jem*, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell as the persecuted Tom Robinson, and Remi Sandri as the despicable Bob Ewell.
As always, Geva’s creative sets draw the audience into the play. We can almost hear the cicadas of summer and feel its oppressive heat. Poverty is etched on the facades of the Finch and Radley homes. The iconic sprawling tree, found on virtually every issue of the book, is created out of a netted material that frames the stage. Its beauty reminds us of the gifts found within, secreted there for the children by Boo Radley. It is also an eerie reminder of the horrific violence that could have happened to Tom Robinson at the hands of an angry mob, had Atticus and the children not intervened.
On February 19, 2016, Harper Lee passed away. Her moving tale is as relevant today as when it was published in 1960. In a time when race relations are frayed, rage seems to ripple across the country like the dust bowls of the 1920’s, and leaders arise who espouse the mob mentality that jeapardized Tom Robinson’s rights and life, this is an important play for both adults and teens to see. It is a reminder that we should not, and cannot stand by in dispassionate observation — as does the teen chorus in this performance of To Kill a Mockingbird — and let events unfold that unravel the very threads of humanity.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission, and can be seen at Geva Theatre Center through March 20, 2016. It is suggested for ages 12 and up. Also check out the other events being held in conjunction with the play.
Photos by Ken Huth, used courtesy of Geva Theatre Center.
*The role of the young Scout is played on alternate nights by Erin Mueller and Alden Duserick. Young Jem Finch is played by Harry Franklin and Nicholas Ford Kinney. Dill Harris is played by Sawyer Duserick and Andrew Beel.