Sunday, October 16, 2011

REVIEW: “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” @ STNJ

Published 1960 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year, first (and only) time author Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has long been a favorite of readers. It has become a staple of middle and high school curricula, Chicago selected the book for its “One Book/One Chicago” reading program and the American Film Institute named Gregory Peck’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film “greatest movie hero of all time.”

Now, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has produced a stage version by Christopher Sergel and sure-handedly directed by Joseph Discher that is as moving and dramatic as the novel and film.

Mockingbird_IMG_0220The production is perfect for the intimate F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, where the entire audience sits in close proximity to the action recounting the gripping story of Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch as he defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The device works best in the courtroom scenes when everyone in the audience becomes a juror weighing the arguments of both prosecution and defense.

Told through the eyes of his adult daughter Jean-Louise (aka Scout), the tale is also a bildungsroman wherein his children, Scout and Jem and their friend Dill, learn much about life in that fateful summer of 1935.

Mockingbird_IMG_0083Anchoring the ensemble as the grown-up Scout is Nisi Stirgis (below far right), who smoothly and skillfully guides us through the story with a combination of amazement toward and loving familiarity with the events unfolding before her/our eyes. Her slow drawl is charming and spot-on for the region, and she comes forward to offer context or exposition or steps into the background to watch as the action unfolds. Brent Harris (above, center, with Jem and Scout) is absolutely marvelous as Atticus Finch; his deep, mellifluous baritone voice and dignified demeanor project the character’s gravitas and are especially powerful in the courtroom scenes, yet he can be playful and loving toward his children too. When he first appears onstage, his resemblance to Gregory Peck is a bit unnerving, but Harris makes the part his own, especially in the courtroom scenes when he gentlemanly questions Mayella Ewell and gives a passionate summation.

Mockingbird_IMG_0176The kids are terrific too. Emmanuelle Nadeau (center left) as tomboy Scout, Frankie Seratch as her older brother Jem (right) and Ethan Haberfield (left) as the “pocket Merlin” Dill (modeled, by the way, on the author Truman Capote) display nary a false or precious note in their performances, just confidence and believable growth from beginning to end.

Supporting standouts include Marjorie Johnson as the capable and formidable long-time Finch maid Calpurnia (above, center), Eileen Glenn as neighborhood busybody Stephanie Crawford, Jean Walker as the curmudgeonly Mrs. Dubose, Chase Newhart as sober Judge Taylor and James Michael Reilly as laconic sheriff Heck Tate. Ray Fisher breaks hearts as the defendant Tom Robinson while Conan McCarty turns stomachs as the repulsive white trash Bob Ewell. Alexis Hyatt manages to make Tom’s accuser Mayella Ewell a sympathetic character. Caught between her racist father and the truth, she struggles mightily, especially in the long speech where she vehemently tells the court what happened that fateful evening when Tom Robinson came into her yard. And, even though he appears fleetingly, Jake Berger’s mysterious Arthur “Boo” Radley genuinely communicates the fascination the kids have with him and the shyness that keeps him shut up inside his house. Just watching Scout walk Mr. Arthur home is very poignant.

And kudos go to Maureen Silliman as neighbor/friend/surrogate mother Miss Maudie Atkinson. She convincingly and naturally projects the character’s warmth and level-headedness, supporting that of Atticus. She’s a joy to watch whenever she comes on stage.

Mockingbird_IMG_2759Anita Tripathi Easterling’s charming set and Matthew E. Adelson’s atmospheric lighting bring 1935 Maycomb, Alabama, to life with a minimum of fussiness, as does Steven L. Beckel’s sound and Maggie Dick’s period costumes. Dialect coach Alithea Phillips makes sure the actors speak with Southern accents and maintain them throughout the play. (right: Brent Harris as Atticus and Emmanuelle Nadeau as Scout)

If you loved the novel and film—and if you have children who have read the book—come on over to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey for this not-to-be-missed, masterfully performed dramatic experience. Even if you aren’t familiar with either, you’ll be glad you did

To Kill a Mockingbird will be performed through November 20 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org.

Photos:  ©Gerry Goodstein