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Theatre Review (LA): To Kill A Mockingbird

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In 1970, Christopher Sergel adapted Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel about racial strife in Depression-era Alabama for the stage, and it has since been performed by theater companies large and small all around the world. So closely does it hew to the novel (and to Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film), it’s more-or-less critic-proof, unless the company presenting it is so awful that the material sinks into amateur embarrassment.

Such is not the case with Actors Co-Op’s new production at the Crossley Theatre in Hollywood. It’s well-mounted, with a number of assured performances, and for those who love the book and film, it’s a way of enjoying the material all over again.

This is certainly a labor of love for director/scenic designer Gary Lee Reed and producer Beth Castle, as there are literally hundreds of elements to monitor in the production—evocative lighting and sound, multiple actors, and the setting itself—the fronts of the various homes in the neighborhood where Atticus Finch lives with his children, Jem and Scout. There are no surprises here—if you love the film, you’ll enjoy this stage recreation, down to the incidental music extracted from Elmer Bernstein’s original score.

But there’s some real talent on display in the performances. Greg Martin makes for an authoritative Atticus. Also enjoyable is Joanne Atkinson as the plain-spoken but perceptive Miss Maudie and Letecia Moore as the Finch’s maid, Calpurnia. Montelle Harvey resonates in his short but crucial scene as the falsely-accused Tom Robinson.

And here, the conceit of the adult narrator sharing the stage with her younger self really works, with Liz Randall as the adult Jean Louise speaking Lee’s beautiful prose and fondly gazing at the other characters…beloved ghosts of her memory. Young Albert Bursalyan and Zoe Calamar, as Jem and Scout, also impress.

I wondered how Reed was going to manage the transition to the courthouse scenes with such a spare set. He draws a black scrim in front of the houses and provides lighting effects (bars of a jail cell; the slow spinning of a ceiling fan) to suggest the atmosphere. Considering the space limits of the stage, it’s resourcefully done.

Another advantage to the small space is that the audience becomes part of the group of courtroom observers, giving the proceedings an intimacy that intensifies the drama. And the story has become such an important part of our popular culture that when Reverend Sykes says, “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing,” I scanned the audience and saw more than a few people wiping their eyes.

Occasionally the music comes close to obliterating the dialogue, but for the most part the ambitious production is rendered skillfully, with sound design by Jenn Peterson, lighting effects by J. Kent Inasy, and nice period costuming by Paula Higgins.

The material still resonates today, because sadly—even though we’d like to think the days of bigotry and racial hatred are past us—the current political and cultural climate is proving to us that it is not so.

To Kill A Mockingbird at the Crossley Theatre, 1760 North Gower Street, Hollywood. Runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. until November 20th. Additional Saturday matinee on October 29th at 2:30 p.m. For reservations call (323) 462-8460, ext. 300, or online.

Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

About Kurt Gardner

Los Angeles-based writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.