To Kill a Mockingbird; Traditional and Compelling

Plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival run the range from conventional to exuberantly experimental.  This summer, for instance, the festival will be producing WillFul, an experimental and experiential piece that reads a bit like a scavenger hunt.  The event goes beyond the walls of the theater and the audience is directed to wear walking shoes.  This year’s Julius Caesar addresses the play from the point of view of power and revolutions, and part of the set is in the plaza outside the New Theater; twelve banners of political leaders who were assassinated. 

To Kill a Mockingbird, in contrast, is staged in a conventional manner.  The festival has a team of brilliantly skilled carpenters, scene and set designers, lighting and sound specialists and it’s fair to say that technologically, the only limit is the set designer’s imagination, which puts a lot of pressure on those designers.  Mockingbird embraces minimalist sets, formal sets and shadow-screens to tell its story. 

The stage is semi-circular with three levels; three steps down to an apron and then three more steps down to the theater floor.  The first and third acts (this is a conventional American three-act play) use limited props, and shadows on the screen backdrop, to evoke the town, the street and Atticus Finch’s house.  When the house is needed, stagehands carry out a door frame hung with a screen door, that has two long pegs at the bottom.  The pegs fit into slots cut in the floor.  There are two sets of slots, to help the audience orient ourselves and understand if we are seeing the front of the house or the side of the house.  When it is needed, a porch swing lowers from the ceiling; when it is not, it rises slowly back skyward. 

The tree with the hollow where Jean Louise Finch, called “Scout” and her older brother Jem, find hidden treasures is silhouetted against the backdrop, as is the increasingly spooky Radley house where the reclusive and maybe crazy “Boo” Radley lives. 

All the other houses on the street are invisible, suggested merely by the behavior of the actors.  Mean old Mrs. Debose just wheels her chair out onto the stage when she is yelling at them from her front porch. 

The front door of the Finch house gets a lot of use, but many of the conversations happen on the front porch, most often between the children and Calpurnia (Isabell Monk O’Connor) the Finch family’s protective housekeeper.  Conversations between Atticus and the men of the town, usually about the trial, take place in the yard, because, as Scout tells us, “Conversations about politics and death” happen there. 

Christopher Sergel, who adapted the play, chose to give us Jean Louise as an adult narrator, a slender, gray-haired woman, simply dressed, who is looking back over her memories of this year in her life.  Jean Louise is no passive narrator; she interacts with her memories, moving among the actors, often speaking the same line as her nine-year-old self. 

In contrast to this nearly bare stage, the second act, which is the courtroom scene, is formal.  There is a full balcony where the children watch the proceedings, an imposing judge’s bench, chairs for the jury (Jean Louise perches on an empty chair, watching the trial with us).  On the lower level, the prosecutor’s and defender’s tables sit side-by-side, facing the judge, even though the actors declaim to the audience.  We watch Mayella Ewell (Susannah Flood) cling to the rotted scraps of her dignity as she faces down Atticus, who she accuses of “sassing” her because he calls her “Ma’am.”  We see the fear and shame in her face as she gives her testimony which we already know is a lie. We watch the shackled and crippled Tom Robinson (Peter Macon), accused of raping her, struggle to swear on the Bible, because he has only one good hand. In the balcony, we are as rapt as the children, and as hopeless as the black Reverend Sykes (Tyrone Wilson), because, like him, we know what the outcome will be, no matter how brilliant Atticus is. 

The action of the jury gives the lie to the solemnity of this set, this virtual temple, and to Atticus’s desperate plea for justice, where he says that everyone knows that not “all men are created equal.”  Some men are stronger, some smarter, some have more advantages, “some ladies make better cakes.”  But there is one place in American, says Atticus, where men are equal; in a court of law. 

If only that were true. 

On the other side of the compelling second act we are back to the imaginary Macon summer landscape, where Scout, Jem and their summer friend Dill find out more about Boo Radley, and Jem and Scout face a vicious attack. Near the end of the play, the shadow-screen fades and a real house, the Radley house, not a shadowy haunted house but a three-dimensional structure, takes its place.  Scout has made a connection, learned something about the real world, in both of these material scenes. 

Dee Maaske, who plays the adult Jean Louise, provides a sweet and wry performance.  Mark Murphey, in the role of Atticus, mostly manages to not look like Gregory Peck, no small achievement, but there is a single moment in the play that caught my breath.  After Atticus has faced down the lynch mob, and sent the children home, he stands for a moment beside his chair.  He looks to one side, and the expression on his face encompasses grief and shame; grief for his client, and also grief for the people of his home town, which he loves, for not being better, for not rising to what he knows they could be. 

The play works because of the authenticity of Scout, Jem and their summer friend Dill; played by Kaya Van Dyke, Braden Day and Leo Pierotti.  These are three fresh and disciplined young talents.  Van Dyke is wonderful but Day captures the bossiness, ignorance and awareness of a boy on the verge of adolescence perfectly.  His theories about life and about Boo Radley, his disappointment with his father, who, as Jean Louise puts in, “didn’t hunt, didn’t fish and didn’t play poker; and wouldn’t let us have any fun either,” which we watch transmute into pride as he sees his father in the courtroom, are vivid and real. 

This is an old play, a powerful play, staged and cast to bring out all its power.  I left sniffling, and thinking, as did the people on either side of me.

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