Eighteen months ago when Festival Theatre chose to stage To Kill A Mockingbird as the opening act of their 2015 summer season — which begins this week in the outdoor sanctuary of Austin Gardens — they had no idea Harper Lee, the long-reclusive author of this much-beloved novel would, to almost everyone’s surprise, be releasing a new book during the run of this production (July 14).

Talk about timing.

“We had no idea about Go Set A Watchman when we chose this,” said Belinda Bremner, longtime Festival actor, director and board member. “I don’t think anyone did. It’s like a new Salinger book appearing.”

It will certainly pique interest and Festival plans to take full advantage. They are “cross-pollinating” with The Book Table on Lake Street. When the new book comes out on the Monday of the play’s closing week, it will be on hand. And since the film version of Mockingbird is almost as revered as the book, local film facilitator (and Wednesday Journal theater critic) Doug Deuchler will emcee a screening and discussion of the Gregory Peck 1962 classic, co-sponsored by Festival and shown at the Oak Park Public Library this Monday, June 15, beginning at 1:30 p.m.

But the book release isn’t the only remarkable coincidence coming into play with this play. 

“We also had no idea how [Ferguson, Baltimore, et al] would dominate the headlines,” Bremner said. “There is, alas, always prejudice, intolerance, unjust ‘justice,’ but this past year has been beyond dreadful.”

As a result, their choice of an African American director, Vaun Monroe, seems particularly prescient. Monroe, perhaps also influenced by the news events of the past year, has chosen to take the play in a direction that emphasizes the stark contrast between black and white on several levels. The set, the costumes, and even the publicity poster are predominantly white and black.

“Early in the process,” said current Festival board President Brad Bartels, “once we had selected the play and gotten the rights to produce it, Artistic Director Jack Hickey discussed his desire to hire an African American to direct it. Jack felt that each director comes at a piece differently and having an African American set the story in motion would be exciting. He was familiar with Vaun’s work, and Vaun had also worked 16th Street Theater in Berwyn.”

“I was excited,” Monroe said. “The story of moral courage and the issues of social justice were appealing to me. I also felt creatively stimulated to direct this classic story that so many have such powerful memories of. 

“In my director’s research,” he noted, “I read the novel again, several times, and researched the era, watched the film, reams of critical analysis of the book. 

“The thing that kept piquing my interest was the stakes in Atticus’ decision to take the Tom Robinson case. The themes of social justice in Mockingbird had so many parallels to 2015 it was eerie. To Oak Park’s credit, they never once flinched from my vision of what I wanted to do with the production. It is a play about the 1930s being produced in 2015. I have been fortunate to attract a brilliant cast who also bought in totally. I believe the production will be a bracing emotional experience for the audience.”

In addition to making the production relevant, Festival also faces the challenge of swimming against the strong current of cherished impressions that many in the audience will bring to their viewing of the play. 

“The stage version concentrates on grown up Jean Louise [Scout] returning to Maycomb, perhaps to settle Atticus’ affairs/estate,” said Bremner, “and sorting and sifting the memories that are weighing on her heart. Like Dancing at Lughnasa or Glass Menagerie, it is a memory play with a narrator who needs to revisit and relive. The scenes are as selective as memory. Some a moment, some longer. Like memories, a play is very personal and ephemeral. 

“Presenting this story, she added, “which most folks encountered on the page or on the screen with live actors, some of them very young, and out of doors, will add elements not available to readers or filmgoers.” 

Just as re-reading a book or viewing a film numerous times is different each time, Bremner observed, “so this production is not set in ink on page or celluloid. 

“Just like Jean Louise, they will be remembering — and finding things they may have missed. Or see differently now that they have ‘put away the things of a child,'” she said. 

This is Festival’s 41st season, said Bartels, “but it marks our 40th anniversary in Austin Gardens as well as our partnership with the Park District of Oak Park.”

To honor that partnership, the park district is sponsoring a Community Appreciation Night for the second preview performance, Friday, June 12. Admission that night is free.

“We encourage those who have never seen one of our productions to join us in the park,” Bartels said. “We also hope that if they enjoy it, they will tell their friends about it and even come back again during the run.”

There will be a second Community Appreciation Night when Festival’s second production of the summer, Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona begins later in July.

Since too many Oak Parkers still express surprise when they learn outdoor summer theater exists in Austin Gardens, this is the time to make your acquaintance.

“I hope this production will spark discussion, debate, and action,” Bremner said. “I hope generations will come to see it together and discuss how things were, are, and can be.”

CONTEST: Win tickets for Oak Park Festival Theatre!

Wednesday Journal has partnered with Oak Park Festival Theatre by giving away 40 tickets to this summer’s productions! Ten winners will be chosen on July 8 and ten more on July 15. Each winner will receive a pair of tickets that will be good for any Festival Theatre performance! To Kill A Mockingbird runs through July 18, 2015 and The Two Gentlemen of Verona goes from July 23 through August 22, 2015. 

CLICK HERE TO ENTER!

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