To Kill a Mockingbird

Written on April 30th, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird

Based upon the novel by Harper Lee, dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Performed by Peter Donaldson, Abigail Winter-Culliford et al.
Directed by Susan H. Schulman
Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival
April 30 to October 27, 2007
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

A Moving Story Brilliantly Bought to Life

When Harper Lee wrote her only novel in 1960, she and her editor didn’t think it would amount to much. But To Kill a Mockingbird became a huge best seller, and if life imitates art, then it was likely very influential in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

But Nelle Harper Lee simply wrote what she knew – the story of life in the 1930’s in the fictional town of Maycomb, which is much like her hometown of Munroeville, Alabama. The tale is told by Scout, the 10-year-old tomboy, just like Lee herself. It covers the escapades and growth of Scout, her friend Dill, who is based on Lee’s real-life friend Truman Capote, and her brother Jem. The children are into usual childhood mischief, when they are suddenly forced to grow up quickly, learning about rape and injustice. Their father, lawyer Atticus Finch, is defending a young black man charged with raping a white girl. And although Atticus clearly presents Tom Robinson’s innocence, the jury finds him guilty, because that’s what must happen in that time of racial bigotry and hatred.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, currently on stage at Stratford’s Avon Theatre, Abigail Winter-Culliford plays the part of Scout exceptionally well. She captures both the innocence of the child and the insightful maturity at the same time, as Lee intended. She twitches and climbs trees and beats up boys, but then has a very adult-like conversation with her father, whom she calls Atticus, not Daddy or Papa. Winter-Culliford’s acting skills are well beyond her 10 years, and she particularly shines in the scene where she confronts the lynch mob.

Peter Donaldson is good as an understated Atticus Finch. He plays the role with quiet confidence, making Atticus a man very sure of himself and his values. Spencer Walker does well in the role of Dill – he could very well be a nerdy little Truman Capote, with his tiny bowtie, buttoned-up shirt and starched collar. Thomas Murray, as Jem, is also good.

The story is told by narrator Jean-Louise, the adult Scout, who has abandoned her nickname. Michelle Giroux walks quietly about the stage, stepping in to relate Scout’s story with a southern drawl, and looking somewhat like Harper Lee.

The neighbourhood is also well-cast: Patricia Collins as Miss Maudie is a gracious southern belle, in contrast to Joyce Campion’s Mrs. Dubose, a nasty old morphine addict. Barbara Barnes-Hopkins is excellent as Calpurnia, the Finches’ black servant who is charged with raising the children after their mother’s death.

The second act moves to the trial. Dayna Tekatch is outstanding as Mayella Ewall, the poor white trash who claims to have been raped, moving from a pitiful mess to intense anger. Dion Johnstone is excellent as Tom Robinson, the accused black man.

The set illustrates the dirty thirties – the homes are worn, dull and run-down, with Spanish moss barely swaying in the trees overhead. One gets the feeling of the heat of Deep South summer, the despair of the depression and the racial oppression, as the story unfolds. The feeling of oppression is further intensified when the black cast sing Negro Spirituals. The set includes a “bottle tree”, a tradition among the black townspeople at that time — the bottles were to capture evil spirits. In this case, however, evil prevailed – even though Miss Maudie points out that progress is slowly being made.

Director Susan Schulman deserves great credit for brilliantly bringing to life Harper Lee’s story, and remaining true to it. It’s a daunting task when most of the audience has read the book or seen the movie. Yet Harper Lee’s message about human rights comes through clearly in this gut-wrenching play, and the audience becomes completely enmeshed in the story. In the courtroom scene, the audience members are treated as if they were the jury. We become caught up in this compelling production, and wish we could change the outcome.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues at the Avon Theatre, Stratford until October 27. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordfestival.ca.

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