Festival triumphs with riveting 'Mockingbird'

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By Doug Deuchler

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Oak Park Festival Theatre's 41st season opened this past weekend with a moving, heartfelt production of Christopher Sergel's dramatic version of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most studied and revered books of the 20th century. This outdoor staging in Austin Gardens on Forest Avenue just north of Lake Street is a real triumph. The performances are riveting and the story still packs a wallop.

Though author Lee depicts racial injustice in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression year of 1935, this timeless classic has much contemporary relevance. Its evocation of bigotry and intolerance 80 years ago still resonates today. As a nation, we continue to struggle with many of the issues portrayed.

Lee's book was published in 1960 and the film was released in 1962. It is impossible to gauge the impact of this material on American society, but the story nudged and encouraged many individuals to take a supportive stand at a pivotal, precarious point in the Civil Rights struggle. 

But this play is about much more than race relations. The quintessential American coming-of-age story, studied by generations of school children, focuses on themes like the corruption of innocence and fighting against injustice. Since the '60s, many of us have come in contact with the book at school, thus linking it to our own childhoods.

The story is in the characters and director Vaun Monroe elicits natural performances from his cast. He effectively stages the production in black, white and grey, like a dusty old movie or a distant memory. Monroe only deviates from this palette when Roxanne Saylor as Jean Louise (Scout looking back as a middle-aged narrator) walks about in a dark red suit, commenting on and amplifying the plot as it unfolds around her. 

John Mossman is strong as the moral center of the play, widowed lawyer Atticus Finch who puts his career on the line when he agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a doomed African American falsely accused of raping a white woman. Any actor playing Atticus has the challenge of putting aside our memory of Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning performance in the 1962 movie version. Mossman is noble but real, less Lincolnesque and saint-like than Peck. Yet his kindness, humility, and calm wisdom function as the moral backbone of this Deep South community. He seeks the truth through courage and compassion.

The three child actors who carry much of the load of this drama are lively and engaging. Lawyer Finch's two precocious children, Jean Louise and Jeremy, are called Scout and Jem. Ada Grey is a perfect Scout, full of belligerent curiosity. She's a feisty tomboy who wears overalls, not dresses like other little girls of the Shirley Temple era. Jem, played by Kyle Klein II, is her sports-minded older brother.

Dill, an odd bookish little boy who is the children's playmate every summer when he's pawned off on an aunt next door, is played by Aaron Lamm. This child is based on author Lee's childhood chum Truman Capote.

The performances are uniformly solid. Belinda Bremner is Miss Maudie Atkinson, an independent-minded, longtime friend of the family who often spends time talking with the children, helping them better understand their father.

Calpurnia, the African American cook and housekeeper at the Finch home, is Kylah Frye. She is the closest thing to a mother Scout and Jem have, plus she's a stern disciplinarian and the children's link to the black community.

Donna Steele plays Miss Dubose, a cantankerous, ill-tempered old neighbor. Miss Stephanie Crawford, the neighborhood busybody who is ever fanning herself, is portrayed by Jillian Weingart. Joshua Carroll is the mysterious, reclusive neighbor Boo Radley. (A bit of trivia: Robert Duval's first appearance on screen was in this role in the '62 film.)

Robert Hardaway is the accused rapist, Tom Robinson, and Ayisha Humphrey plays his wife. 

Mayella Ewell, a friendless, impoverished young woman, the alleged rape victim, is played by Alex Fisher. Aaron Christensen is Mayella's father, a violent, vindictive alcoholic.

Jack Hickey plays Sheriff Heck Tate. David Elliott is a proud but poor farmer,

Much of the second act is given over to an extended courtroom scene. Margaret Goddard-Knop's set design, a cluster of connected houses, easily doubles as the courtroom, with its porch level becoming the gallery.

Rachel Aileen Regan's sound design provides vintage radio broadcasts before the show and during the intermission, such as a bit of an Amos 'n' Andy program from 1928 when Al Smith was running for president against Herbert Hoover and a 1940s clip of Abbott & Costello's famous "Who's On First?" sketch. At the final curtain we hear Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions' "We're A Winner" from 1967, an R&B record about black pride: "No more tears do we cry/And we have finally dried our eyes/And we're movin' on up!"

This solid production is suitable for middle school age children on up. With a bit of prep, the show could inspire family dialogue about bigotry and injustice and how compassion and empathy can overcome ignorance and prejudice. 

But let me clarify: this is no Disney movie. The "n-word" flies around a lot, an angry late-night lynch mob shows up in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, and on one scary night the children are stalked by an unstable, dangerous man. 

This play is not a word-for-word adaptation so some material and characters from the novel had to be cut. But it's an enchanting, almost magical production that illustrates the struggle between individual conscience and the prejudice of the majority, reminding us even when it's obvious from the start that you cannot succeed, you must still fight for what you know to be right.

To Kill a Mockingbird portrays a time during the Great Depression when economic challenges caused the American Dream to recede further and further. Some say it's happening again. But looking back on this work is reaffirming and reassuring. This is a powerful and poignant production.

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Leonard Grossman from River Forest   

Posted: June 16th, 2015 4:39 PM

Excellent reviewof an outstanding production. I'll be there again Thursday night. And thanks to Doug Deuchler for presenting the film at OPPL Monday.

Jack Hickey from Skokie  

Posted: June 16th, 2015 4:31 PM

Nice review. Thanks Doug. One correction - the adaptation is by Christopher Sergel.

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