Reviewed by George Basler
The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players took a risk in staging To Kill a Mockingbird as the first production of their 2015-16 season.
Not only is the original novel by Harper Lee one of the most familiar and beloved in American literature, but the subsequent movie, starring Gregory Peck, is near flawless.
So Christopher Sergel’s straightforward, somewhat prosaic, stage adaptation is bound to come up short, and it does.
That being said, the Ti-Ahwaga production, which opened this past weekend (Oct. 2-4), succeeds on its own terms. It’s a good, solid effort that still packs an emotional punch, in large part due to Greg Fusare’s excellent portrayal of Atticus Finch, a loving father and idealistic lawyer in Depression-era Alabama.
Lee’s novel deftly combined the coming-of-age adventures of Atticus’ two children, Jem and Scout, and their friend, Dill, with a courtroom drama about Atticus’ defense of a black man falsely accused of rape. Sergel’s play, by contrast, moves the rape case center stage almost immediately.
It’s not a good decision. One of the book and movie’s high points is the interaction of the three children with Boo Radley, the unseen, mysterious character who takes on mythic status as a bogeyman in the kids’ imaginations. But this interaction is almost completely lacking in Sergel’s play.
The absence drains much of the emotional resonance from the play’s ending when Boo “comes out” to save Jem and Scout’s lives and reinforce Atticus’ lesson that all persons need to be treated with dignity.
On the plus side, Sergel fleshes out some of the characters given short shrift in the movie. And the large 18-person Ti-Ahwaga cast, directed by Todd E. Smith, does a fine job in presenting the characters.
Particularly noteworthy is Diane Arbes’ compelling performance as Miss Maudie, the Finches’ neighbor and occasional narrator of the play’s action. The character must pointedly comments on the social mores of a small Southern town, and Arbes does this effectively.
Also, under Smith’s direction, the trial scene remains a gripping theatrical moment. Credit goes to Isaac Quattlebaum’s dignified portrayal of Tom Robinson, the falsely accused black man, and Kristina Jackson’s performance as the white teenager who accuses him of rape. Jackson successfully makes the emotionally damaged character both hateful and sympathetic.
One of the play’s highlights is Atticus’ passionate closing statement in the rape trial. Smith stages the scene so the character faces the audience, in effect putting the audience in the jury members’ shoes as they weigh the case. It’s a nice directorial touch.
Fusare’s portrayal of Atticus is stellar. He takes a character closely identified with another actor and makes it his own, and that’s no faint praise. His Atticus is gruffer than the character in the movie and a reluctant hero. Still he remains a model of moral rectitude.
As the children, Nadia Murphy, Adam Ackerman and John-Paul Kidney do creditable jobs in difficult roles. They have to show youthful exuberance as it collides with a growing realization of evil in the world. They three young actors make it believable.
In a perfect world, To Kill a Mockingbird would be a dated piece. Legal segregation in the Deep South, after all, has disappeared, and blatant racism is considered bad form.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. The “Black Lives Matter” movement and the recent shooting deaths in an African-American church in South Carolina show that America’s racial issues remain painful and controversial. And that keeps To Kill a Mockingbird relevant.
During a question-and-answer session following a preview performance last Thursday (Oct. 1) for students, Foster Daniels Jr., who plays a black minister in the play, said people need to reach across racial lines to dispel stereotypes. The comment echoed the theme of the play. As Atticus states, you really don’t know someone until you walk around in their skin.
The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players deserves credit for presenting this still-timely play.
IF YOU GO: To Kill a Mockingbird runs weekends through Oct. 18 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center. 42 Delphine St., Owego. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 ($18 for ages 60 and older and under 18). Visit www.tiahwaga.com or call 607-687-2130. One word of caution. While the play is a good one for middle school and high school students, the “n” word is used several times, and the subject of rape is discussed by the characters.