‘MOCKINGBIRD’ AT PLAYHOUSE: EVEN WITH CLIPPED WINGS, ITS STORY FLIESBy Greggory Moore
Doing the stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a bit a like doing one of Shakespeare’s famous plays: pretty much your whole audience knows the broad strokes when they enter the theater, but half may be fuzzy on the specifics.
With Shakespeare, this isn’t such a problem (although the language might be), because there it is, played out in front of their eyes in all its glory. But Christopher Sergel’s 1990 theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is something of a shorthand, an ersatz version of the original. Yes, you get the same basic scenes and themes, but less so.
Whether enough comes across is a question to which we’ll return, but one stark difference is that, in Sergel’s hands, this is no longer really Scout Finch’s story. Yes, the prepubescent female firebrand (played here by Brianna Beller) is still right there in the mix, but she is reduced from the point of view she is in the novel (a vantage point preserved in Horton Foote’s screenplay) to just another character—central, to be sure, but not the hub. This shift doesn’t doom the stage version, but it does take away some of the tale’s power. Sure, Scout still comes of age (wider empathy, a more nuanced understanding of society, a deeper appreciation of her father), but in the play we see it happen to her, we don’t get to experience it quite with her.
If anything, our window into the action is Maudie Atkinson (Sarah Green), a kindly but peripheral character already come of age who lays out some of the play’s themes and is the one (instead of Scout) narrating directly to us. Why Sergel shifted the focus is anyone’s guess, but the result is a missed target.
The main character, then, is Atticus Finch, that pillar (in every non-architectural sense of the word) of society who mounts a forceful* but ultimately futile defense of Tom Robinson (a black man falsely accused of raping a young, poverty-stricken white woman obviously cowed by her despicable father), despite the sweltering climate of Southern bigotry in which he lives. Along the way, Atticus (played with proper dignity by Peter Stone) teaches—by word and deed—his children a thing or two about integrity, humility, and plain old right and wrong.
That asterisk above touches upon the problems of Sergel’s shorthand approach—because really, onstage, Atticus doesn’t come off as much of a lawyer. Ethical? A good man? No question. But his defense is not equal to his rhetorical stylings, and we have to take on faith that the jury convicts Tom (to whom David Pannell gives a nice bit of pathos) based only on the color of his skin.
The shorthand also hurts during what is perhaps the film’s most-powerful moment: the tribute given to Atticus by the black men and women in the gallery upon his exit from the courtroom. If you take away one image from the film, it will probably be Gregory Peck pausing to take in the hundred or so second-floor figures standing in silent homage to this redoubtable man, with one gesture both paying tribute and asserting their irrepressible human dignity. But onstage such a moment is not quite possible, and so we are left to project the full gesture onto what we actually see.
A similar problem—though one that has nothing to do with logistics—is Boo Radley (Dave Edwards). Although we never fully encounter Boo until the film’s final minutes, his presence has shadowed earlier action. Onstage, though, that shadow is never really cast, and so when he does appear it feels a bit too deus ex machina.
That said, somehow the stuff with Boo still worked for me—his moments were, in fact, the most affecting in a play that, shorthanded as it may be, has plenty of pith. Boo strikes out from the shadows against evil at great potential peril to himself, but he is spared the “No good deed goes unpunished” sort of injustice that poor Tom was made to suffer. It turns out that even in the midst of a corrupt society, sometimes people just do the right thing for no other reason than it being right, a pay-it-forward sort of seed-sowing that gives one hope that humankind might grow into something better.
And that, ultimately, is why Long Beach Playhouse’s To Kill a Mockingbird works well enough. The acting is a little heavy on recitation and light on genuine responsiveness (though I saw a preview, so I’m sure things will come to flow a bit more loosely); the set, while functional, is a little overly simple; the script isn’t all there. And yet you walk out of theater touched. It’s not every play you can say that about.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE • 5021 E ANAHEIM ST • LONG BEACH 90804 • 562.494.1014 LBPLAYHOUSE.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $24; $21 FOR SENIORS; $14 FOR STUDENTS • THROUGH NOV 19