In 1960 Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer that year, and has never since been out of print. Apart from belonging to the canon of contemporary American literature it is a phenomenal example of poignant, nuanced, brilliant narrative that has an intuitive feel for language and character. What might have ended up as a didactic homily, became a profoundly moving novel. Lee explored the impact of an incident. Tom Robinson (a black man) is tried for allegedly raping a white woman, through the eyes of Scout, a Southern tomboy no older than 10. Like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Harper Lee’s Mockingbird achieved depth and freshness by creating a narrator who avoided the cynical racist indoctrination of the older characters. Raised by Atticus Finch (an attorney who despises bigotry) Scout and her older brother Jem, are more or less impervious to the narrow attitudes that shape the inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1933. In Atticus Finch, Lee created a remarkable, yet credible hero, that while lacking some traditional aspects of heroism, strived to treat others with care and consideration. Without a trace of self-righteousness.
Playing at Theatre Arlington, the stage adaptation (by Christopher Sergel) of To Kill A Mockingbird is true to the plot of Lee’s book, if not exactly the experience. Sergel introduces the character of Scout as an adult. Now called Jean Louise Finch, she leads us through the high points of the story. Atticus Finch has been assigned the task of defending Tom Robinson against Myella Ewell’s charges of rape. This has drawn down the wrath of many of his neighbors, but Atticus holds his head high, and refuses to judge even those who hold him in contempt. Scout, Jem and their Cousin Dill follow the trial, when they’re not up to mischief, or learning the hard life lessons we all must. Scout catches a lot of grief for her boyish affect, and is subsequently marginalized just like Tom Robinson, the conscientious (though humble) Atticus, and the eccentric Boo Radley.
The trial of Tom Robinson, and its outcome, serve as a litmus test for the moral substance of the small, tired town of Maycomb. Sergel’s drama includes details we all remember, and omits others. There’s the long-suffering housekeeper Calpurnia, Mrs. Dubose, the ill-tempered, verbally abusive neighbor, and the chilling moment when Boo saves Jem and Scout. It’s to Sergel’s credit that he avoids simply transferring Mulligan’s film to the stage. It’s a dubious and daunting challenge, to distill (rather than synopsize) an astonishing work such as Mockingbird. Lee reaches us by choosing diction carefully, and never telling us what to think. We share in the lives of key characters (Mayella Ewell, Calpurnia, Dill Harris, Helen Robinson, etc…) and how this calamity affects them, but Lee never resorts to aphorism or summation. Mr. Sergel makes a valiant effort to do justice to this overwhelming story, but it couldn’t have been easy.
Under the direction of Michael Serrecchia, Theatre Arlington’s To Kill A Mockingbird is filled with earnest, warm, involved performances that are charming and memorable. It has so many lovely, tender moments, and evidence of the audience’s sympathy could be heard throughout the show. Noteworthy performers include: Jared Culpepper (Bob Ewell) Sara Ragsdale (Jean Louise Finch) Dorothy Lynn Brooks (Mrs. Dubose) Delmar H. Dolbier (Judge Taylor) DR Hanson (Walter Cunningham) Patricia E. Hill (Calpurnia) Tye Janae (Tom Robinson) and Todd Hart (Atticus Finch).
Theatre Arlington presents To Kill a Mockingbird, playing April 7th-23rd, 2017. 305 West Main Street, Arlington, Texas 76010. (817) 275-7661 www.TheatreArlington.org