Classic Novel comes Alive on Stage
A black man is wrongly accused of rape and found guilty despite strong evidence he couldn’t have done it. Sound familiar? While it might have happened last week, it is from the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, set in 1935. This story is currently being brought to life on stage at Stratford’s Festival Theatre.
The stage production has maintained Harper Lee’s brilliant award-winning storytelling. Jean Louise is an adult in 1968, when Martin Luther King is assassinated. The audience is shown the news footage of King’s death on some white sheets hanging on the upper balcony of the festival stage. Then we go back to the 1930s. Calpurnia, the housekeeper, yanks down the white sheets, bringing in the laundry. Jean Louise as narrator remains on stage, while her younger self, known by the nickname Scout, becomes the central character in the story. Scout, in her overalls, is enjoying the summer with her brother Jem and playmate Dill. The three are having fun speculating about the spooky lifestyle of the reclusive Boo Radley who lives nearby. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer in the sleepy little town of Maycomb, Alabama. He is asked to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman. The children are jeered for having a father who will aid Negroes, but they attend the court case and see that Robinson is innocent. Their hope is destroyed when he is found guilty.
Irene Pope plays the adult Jean Louise Finch and acts as narrator. She seems almost ghost-like on the stage, walking around the characters who don’t see her. During the courtroom scene, she is intrusive, getting close to and staring at whoever is speaking. It is uncomfortable, but perhaps discomfort is Director Nigel Shawn Williams’ intention.
The three children are excellent. Clara Poppy Kushnir as young Scout is exceptional, dripping with sassy attitude at first, but coming to a greater understanding of her world. It’s as if we can see her mature before our eyes. Hunter Smalley is delightful as Dill, whose character is based on Harper Lee’s close friend, Truman Capote. We can easily imagine little Smalley growing up to become Capote. Jacob Skilba is good as Jem, the big brother who has to take the lead for the other two. The only concern with the children is that when they get excited and their voices become shrill, it’s difficult to understand them.
Jonathan Goad is outstanding as Atticus Finch. He makes Finch self-assured, but still lets his vulnerability show. He’s a loving father, without mollycoddling his kids. When I read the book many years ago, I was impressed with the fact that he let his children call him by his first name, rather than Dad or Father, without fear of what the neighbours would say. Goad demonstrated that strength and independence.
The most striking moment of the play is when the Ku Klux Klan members, in full white regalia, come to the jailhouse to lynch Robinson before he goes to trial. As the tall white hats and long gowns appear on stage, an audible gasp goes through the audience. Kushnir as Scout handled the scene perfectly with a child’s innocence, speaking to one of the KKK members when she recognized his voice, and thus thwarting the attack on Robinson.
To Kill a Mockingbird is listed as this year’s Schulich Youth Play, but a level of maturity is required before a child should attend. If you decide to bring children and youth, ensure that they understand the content before they come. It will be an impactful learning opportunity, suitable for parents and grandparents, too.
This play is well worth seeing – a look at how we must not let history repeat itself, despite current indications that we are headed that way. Stratford’s production of this classic is an excellent reminder.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues in repertory until November 4 (extended to Nov. 8) at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
Photo: Left: Matthew G. Brown as Tom Robinson and Jonathan Goad as Atticus Finch. Right: Hunter Smalley as Dill and Clara Poppy Kushnir as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photos by David Hou.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Performed by Jonathan Goad, Irene Pool, Clara Poppy Kushnir, Jacob Skiba, Hunter Smalley, et al.
Produced by Stratford Festival
Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 7 to November 4, 2018 Extended to Nov. 8.
Reviewed by Mary Alderson