By Mike Hoban
“To Kill A Mockingbird” – From the novel by Harper Lee; Stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel; Directed by Judy Braha; Set Design by Jon Savage; Lighting Design by John Malinowski; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Sound Design by David Wilson. Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, through October 28.
During a pre-trial scene in To Kill A Mockingbird, the stage version of Harper Lee’s semi-autobiographical novel about racial injustice and the loss of innocence, there’s this defining exchange between defense attorney Atticus Finch and Scout, his 10-year old daughter.
“Atticus, are we going to win it?”
“Then why –”
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” says Atticus.
The scene not only encapsulates the essence of the play – now being staged by the Gloucester Stage Company, with a truly absorbing production – but also serves as a beacon of hope to those who are losing heart in the face of the seemingly daily onslaught of injustice being heaped upon various segments of the population today. Much like the assertion by the Jimmy Stewart character in the depression-era film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for, “Because of just one plain, simple rule: “Love thy neighbor” – Mockingbird is a stark reminder that doing the right thing regardless of the outcome or consequences represents our highest calling.
Set in poverty-stricken 1933 Maycomb, Alabama (also during the Great Depression), Mockingbird tells two intertwined stories: Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman; and the hard (but ultimately rewarding) life lessons learned by Scout and Jem, Atticus’ children, during their summer break from school. Told in flashback by Scout years later, Harper Lee’s gorgeous prose (“Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum”) is beautifully brought to life by Gloucester Stage regular Amanda Collins, who infuses the narration with an understated Southern charm.
To Kill A Mockingbird separates itself from standard morality plays by showing us characters who are not broadly drawn in black and white, as good or bad, but with behavioral elements across the spectrum of humanity. So when we see men like Walter Cunningham (a brilliant turn by Thomas Grenon, who also plays Judge Taylor) transform from a decent and grateful man into one that is capable of doing morally reprehensible things when he succumbs to a mob mentality, we have an opportunity to understand not only our own neighbors, family and friends – but (hopefully) ourselves. And when we watch Scout, Jem and their new friend Dil slowly lose their fear of (what they believe) is the monstrous Boo Radley, by learning – as Atticus tells Scout – that “You never really understand a person…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” – the play turns from one of complete tragedy into one of optimism.
The Gloucester Stage production benefits greatly from its terrific cast, led by Lewis D. Wheeler as Atticus Finch. Wheeler portrays the noble Finch as one who has arrived at his present dignified demeanor through his own painful journey, and we can feel the low hum of anger that still lies beneath his calm outward resolve. The supporting cast is uniformly good, with the aforementioned Grenon a standout, as is Aaron Dowdy as the doomed Tom Robinson. Cliff Blake cleverly adds some unexpected comic touches to the deplorable character of Bob Ewell, the drunken father of the alleged rape victim Mayella (played with a convincing fearfulness by Teresa Langford).
But it is the performances of the child actors that really anchor this riveting production. Casting kids in non-musical or comedy roles can be tricky for obvious reasons, but director Judy Braha elicits confident and believable performances from her trio of young performers, Carly Williams, Nate Oaks and Gabriel Magee. Oaks and Magee are making their professional debuts in this production, but you would never guess by their assured performances. Williams is a veteran performer in regional theater and is brilliant as the guileless Scout, fully embodying her role.
This is the season closer for Gloucester, and they’re going out with a winner. Don’t miss it. For more information, go to: http://gloucesterstage.com/