Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book To Kill A Mockingbird is an American Literature classic, and has been on required reading lists for high school students for many years. It has also been adapted into what is considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck.
With this kind of history, to take on the play adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird is a daunting task, and one that has to live up to countless expectations. Bridgeport Theatre Company’s production not only surpasses these expectations, but brings new life into this powerful story of racial prejudice and moral integrity so that it resonates not only with those who remember the segregated days of America’s past, but all those who have witnessed or who have felt the sting of prejudice in today’s time. With a superb cast, innovative direction by Eli Newsom, and a great production team, BTC once again has brought a major hit to the local theater scene.
I fell in love with this production from the beginning. A simple set design by Kevin Pelkey suggests a neighborhood where children can play outside all day. Combined with lighting by Phill Hill, sound design by Christopher Gensur, and the bluesy, soulful music of Christopher Cavaliere, I felt I was transported to the small, sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama on a hot, hazy summer evening. Once the narrator, Jean Louise Finch, played by Kitty Robertson, began telling her tale of those haunting events of her youth in her slow, southern drawl, I was hooked.
All of the cast members gave superb performances, but the stars of the show, for me, were the three children who played Scout, Jem, and Dill, along with the hero, Atticus Finch, played by veteran actor Will Jeffries.
Claire Regan’s Scout was all innocence tempered with a thirst to know the truth of the grown up world around her. She was the tomboy who wanted to keep up with her brother, never annoyingly precocious, but on the verge of a maturity that would come as the events of that summer unfolded. It was a pleasure to watch her on stage with her older self, Jean Louise, and to witness the blossoming of those traits that defined her as a woman.
Tyler Felson’s faithful portrayal of Scout’s older brother Jem was a joy to watch. He could be the goading, annoying, and sometimes annoyed older brother, but ultimately he was protective of his sister, just like most older brothers. You see the transformation of this boy into a young man who dutifully obeys his father’s direction by reading to Mrs. Dubose, and who also openly disobeys his father’s directive to go home when faced with a mob. Jem’s disobedience is not an act of defiance, but one of heroism, in the spirit of doing what he considers to be the right thing.
And Mia Cenholt-Haulund’s portrayal of Dill is a revelation. Not only did she play a young boy, but she convincingly became the old soul of the group. The fact that Dill had been passed off to live with his aunt by his neglectful parents could be why he had the ability to look to the heart of things; but whatever the reason, I loved his character. He was fun, he was a leader, and he perfectly rounded out the trio of friends.
The childrens’ world, as well as the main plot of the story, revolved around the father, Atticus Finch. As he defends an innocent black man accused of raping a white girl in their segregated and racially charged little town, it is Atticus who shows the children what it means to be just and moral in the face of overwhelming adversity. Atticus not only teaches with words, but also by example. He is the kind of man deserving to be looked up to and emulated. He is a true hero.
Will Jeffries’ portrayal of Atticus is spot-on for his moral rectitude and quiet integrity. The courtroom scene was riveting, and I could not help being swept up in his moving speech about the “living, working reality” of the American court system and his plea to the jury to do their duty in the name of God. What’s more, the gentle lessons that he imparts to his children throughout the play are touching. We can see his struggle as he tries to explain the anger and ugliness of the trial and the townspeople while still protecting the children’s youth and innocence. I did wish at some points that Jeffries’ portrayal would include a little more physical affection for his children, but that may have been a calculated decision. The lack of physical affection made his thank-you to the man responsible for saving his children at the end of the play all the more moving and brought tears to my eyes.
Special note should also be given to Lynette Victoria and Roger Dykeman for their portrayals of Mayella Ewell and Bob Ewell, the instigators of the trial; Everton Ricketts who convincingly plays the accused Tom Robinson with a complete understanding of the fear a black man accused of raping a white woman would feel in 1935 Alabama; and to Andrea Garmun, who as Maudie Atkinson, voices the hope for change in their sleepy little town. Also notable is Stephen DiRocco as prosecuting attorney Mr. Gilmer, whose offended incredulity that a black man might feel sorry for a white woman brought to life the depth of the prejudice that Tom Robinson faced.
Once again, all of the enormous talent of the production staff and actors are unified under the innovative direction of Eli Newsom. I especially like the way he uses the complete theater, not just the stage, as part of various scenes. Actors make entrances and exits throughout the house, also lending an atmosphere of a real neighborhood for the children to explore. The balcony is also used throughout the performance, immersing the audience in the action of the play. Various town characters are brought to life by voiceovers, as is the crowd present at the trial. In fact, my only disappointment of the evening was that Mrs. Dubose is one of the voiceovers. She is a character that I would have loved to see.
There are many, many quotes and lines from the play that touched and moved me, and that are as poignant today as when the words were first written in 1960. Bridgeport Theatre Company’s new production proves why To Kill A Mockingbird is such a timeless classic, and it is a must-see for theater lovers of all ages. It runs through March 30th at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport. For more information click here Bridgeport Theatre.
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