To Kill A Mockingbird
October 11 to November 6, 2011
Max Bell Theatre
Tune into CBC Radio’s Calgary Eyeopener on Monday, October 17 at around 8:20 to hear my live review
Taking a classic story such as To Kill A Mockingbird and making it fresh for theatre goers is a huge challenge for any production company. Since Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book was published in 1959, To Kill A Mockingbird has gone on to sell over 30 million copies, is required reading in many English classrooms, was made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck and is today still one of the most produced plays in North America.
In other words – it’s been done to death.
Theatre Calgary’s answer to the freshness question comes in two forms – casting and set design. One of Canada’s most respected stage actors, R.H. Thompson, takes on the coveted role of Atticus Finch for the first time and the production features a special onstage seating section for 30 audience members. Both of these decisions are good in principle, but if not used to their fullest potential can be mere differences as opposed to enhancements.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First the storyline for those of you who didn’t read the book in high school or who need a refresher.
Set during the Depression years in a fictional town in Alabama, the central plot of the play is a trial in which Atticus Finch, a middle-aged white lawyer, defends Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a young poor white woman named Mayella Ewell. Atticus’ defense goes beyond mere lawyerly duty, he is a man of honour who shuns the prevalent prejudices and truly believes that all men are equal both within and outside the courtroom. This is a time and a town when black people are treated as second class citizens at best (beware the “n” word is used a total of 13 times during the play) and Finch comes under harsh criticism for his wanting to help Tom – criticism that extends to his children.
We are told this story by Finch’s daughter Scout, just a girl at the time of the trial, but now an adult delivering a monologue narration throughout the entire play. It is in fact young Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill that dominate most of the play talking about everything from their father to the reclusive next-door neighbour Boo Radley to the trial itself. And it is the trial that the children eventually become obsessed with.
Because Atticus does not want them to be present at Tom Robinson’s trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak into the court and watch in secret from the balcony. Atticus shows the jury that the accusers Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, the town drunk—are lying. It was in fact Mayella who made sexual advances towards Tom and when her father caught her, he beat her senseless. Despite strong evidence of his innocence, the jury finds Tom guilty and he is sent to jail, only to be shot dead at a later date trying to escape. Despite his victory, Bob Ewell feels humiliated by the trial and vows revenge against Atticus and it is this revenge that plays out in the conclusion of the performance.
So now, back to the “fresh” elements. The onstage seating is superfluous at best and kitschy at worst. In an interview, director Dennis Garnhum explains that he wanted the audience “to be surrounded by the goodness of Atticus Finch and be witness to the story. That’s why we have onstage seating”. Frankly I don’t see how 30 people on stage help the rest of the audience feel surrounded by Atticus’s goodness. During the first act the audience is not part of the action at all and just sits in the perimeter of the stage staring out at the actors and the audience. This set up makes more sense in the second half when they effectively become part of the courtroom crowd populating the stage. But here was the missed opportunity to have this design really work. Very seldom did Thompson or anyone in the courtroom address the onstage audience, plead their case to them or even acknowledge that they were there. So what was the point?
I spoke with several onstage audience members at the intermission to ask how they were enjoying the experience and most liked the novelty. But I did hear from some people who said that with the actors’ backs often to them and the distraction of seeing what was going on in the wings, they felt that they were missing out on the full play.
What I felt I was missing out on was R.H. Thompson’s performance. And believe me; it pains me to say that as I am a HUGE fan of his work. I think it’s probably impossible for Thompson to be bad in a production, but I now know that he can be small ‘f’ fine. The role of Atticus Finch calls for gravitas in the belief of what is right and wrong, strength in standing up to prejudice, the ability to conjure outrage at the unjust treatment of Tom Robinson. But I felt none of this. In describing why he was defending Robinson in the face of adversity to his children, Thompson took on a matter of fact demeanour and worse still gave a fairly lackluster performance throughout the entire courtroom scene. After Atticus’ commanding defence at trial, the audience is supposed to actually believe that he has a chance at winning, but Thompson’s argument was so luke-warm, I couldn’t see how anyone could think he’d win.
There were certainly times when I saw the brilliance of Thompson’s acting. Notably in some of the smaller scenes where he simply plays father to his children. But the sad fact is that overall it could have been any actor playing the role and it would have been just as good.
There were other disappointing elements. Garnhum did a nice job of directing Brooke Johnson’s narration as the adult Scout and weaving her into the action onstage. But Johnson’s delivery was weirdly over the top and affected, and took away from my enjoyment of the play with every appearance. Jenise Farrell as the young Scout was a fine actor for the most part, but I had a hard time understanding what she was saying. At first I thought it was where I was sitting, but apparently I was not the only one straining to get her lines. I’m not sure if it was her pace, enunciation or accent, but unfortunately what I got was gist more than dialogue.
The play however did have some strong positives. Edwin Curr as Jem and Marcus Trummer as Dill were both wonderful, proving that young actors really can hold their own as major roles in a major production. Melanee Murray as the Finch’s maid Calpurnia delivered a high energy and often funny performance that brought levity to the story. But in the spotlight category, it was David Trimble as Bob Ewell that was a standout for me. He was deliciously dirty and mean and ignorant and although it was a small part, my eyes were on him throughout his entire time onstage.
I wanted ‘great’ with this production of To Kill A Mockingbird; what I got was ‘fine’ by the time the pluses and minuses were tallied up. And I seriously doubt that’s the way Scout or Harper Lee would have wanted it.
For the guys – It’s a courtroom drama narrated by a tomboy girl where right and wrong are apparent but doesn’t guarantee the good guys win. SEE IT
For the girls – Scout is a spunky, smart and funny girl that you will love despite not getting every line. The scenes with the kids are great and make it worth getting a seat. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – It’s an enjoyable if not spectacular night in the theatre that will leave you feeling like you got your money’s worth. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Is just fine what you want from Mockingbird? I didn’t think so. SKIP IT