To stage a 'Mockingbird'

It is a great strength of Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's iconic "To Kill a Mockingbird" that it is a simple story. It is tempting to say that's also the play's greatest weakness, but there are two greater weaknesses.

The first is Sergel's decision to use a narrator, Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, to tell the story as a memory play. This seldom works in plays ("Our Town" is a special case) which are expected to show, not tell. It is usually a sign that the playwright could not figure not out how to stage his story.

The play's second weakness is that Sergel lollygags his way through the first half of the play building atmosphere and telling us (rather than showing) leisurely about the characters. Hey, the narrator has to have something to do before anything much happens, which it doesn't until after the intermission.

In the production that opened Saturday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the fireworks finally began going off deep in the play (an hour-and-a-half in, maybe) as Atticus Finch (Mark Murphey) questioned witnesses in the trial of Tom Robinson (Peter Macon), the black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman.

The scene has been carefully crafted by Sergel and is beautifully played as the crux of a battle between ignorance, hatred and cruelty on the one hand and simple decency on the other. Atticus's demolition of the lying Mayella Ewell (a riveting Susannah Flood), Tom's accuser, is full of pathos and traditional Southern tropes of class of race.

Atticus daringly puts Tom on the stand and with detailed questions establishes his probable innocence. In effect he asks jurors to listen to their better angels. Macon's performance is a masterful job of conveying character economically through expressions, timing and vocal timbre. The scene becomes electric; it the punch of an iceberg, impressive upfront with a sense of something even bigger unseen.

Too bad there's not more of that in the rest of the play.

Marion McClinton, who directed, is probably best-known as a director of the late August Wilson's plays. He's said the play is about a community growing up and finding its soul. I do not understand this reading given the (predictable) outcome of the trial, Tom's fate and the complete absence of any change in abusive racist lowlife Bob Ewell (Howie Seago) and his unwashed comrades.

With an open, two-level set by the McClinton's frequent collaborator, David Gallo, the director keeps his actors primarily downstage and even uses the front aisle as performance space, creating a sense of intimacy. The set has none of the usual buildings and evokes the Finch's home with a simple door frame and uses a light-and-shadow world with shadow puppets on a rear screen for the Radley home and other effects.

As befits a memory play seen through the eyes of children, the shadow world shifts in scale, looming larger and larger with a moving light source as it's approached by Jem, for example. It is a canny touch and highly theatrical.

Deborah Dryden's scruffy Depression-era costumes are extraordinary in their textures and loose shapes and project a tactile quality that's almost palpable right into the audience.

McClinton keeps the children moving almost the whole time they're on the stage. The young actors, Kaya Van Dyke as Scout, Braden Day as her brother, Jem, and Leo Pierotti as Dill, acquit themselves beautifully. But they are children, and they are on stage a lot, and there are stretches in which not much happens.

Dee Maaske does about as well as you can with all the telling and the exposition Sergel turned to. She's forced to spend a lot of time on stage staying out of the way of the actors while waiting to tell us what's going on.

Sergel aimed his adaptation at a young audience. Why the OSF programmed what's essentially a children's play seems a fair question, and an answer suggests itself. If regional theater is to survive as a center for important work now that Broadway has for the most part abandoned that role, it's crucial that young audiences be not only lured to the theater but exposed to something moving.

"Mockingbird" will put a lot of butts in seats through July 3 when it closes. Most young people who see the play will be moved by the work of Macon, Murphey, Seago and Flood in the trial scenes if they can get through the first act and all the narration.

Atticus famously tells Scout that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, that they "sing their hearts out for us." Mockingbirds actually sing for each other. They also develop a repertoire of other creature's vocalizations — birds, animals, even rusty gates — which they perform by the hour. It's probably a bit giddy to think this could almost be a metaphor for the adaption of others' work with the use of a narrator.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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