All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the established classics of 20th century literature. It is included in many, and probably most, curricula. Its theme and lessons resonate. It chronicles a time when bigotry could trump justice, and when divides, racial and social, were fixed and defining in way that made certain attitudes and outcomes predictable.
Jesse Cline is one of the most canny directors at finding the genuine substance of a character or situation and bringing it to the stage. Cline generally works to convey simple truths and to let honesty speak volumes.
In directing Christopher Sergel’s dramatic adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Cline uncharacteristically seems too reverential towards the material. Though Megan Rucidlo, as alleged rape victim Mayella Ewell, delivers a breakthrough performance and shows new dimension to her acting, and Bob Stineman fulfills his ambition his turn as Atticus Finch will raise his stock as a lead actor on local stages, Cline’s production seems stilted, deliberate, slow, and exaggerated in a way that, except for Rucidlo’s work, and some exchanges between Stineman and Paul Dake as Atticus’s opposing attorney, evaporates any power in Lee or Sergel’s text and renders “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a pedantic, transparent bore.
We don’t see a classic, a work of literature that breathes and radiates through time. We see a museum piece, “To Kill a Mockingbird” carved in stone and presented as if was too precious a work to be brought to a human level and animated with the fervor Atticus expresses in his summation to the jury rendering a verdict in a rape case or by the energy and active curiosity of three precocious, inquisitive kids.
Cline takes pains to make every word and thought in “To Kill a Mockingbird” clear, but he does so in a way that saps its strength and negates its importance. It comes across as a moral lesson rather than a man’s attempt, with the help of a wise judge and one enlightened neighbor, to teach his children — from the generation that will fight World War II, spawn Baby Boomers, and address civil rights squarely — how to approach and live in an imperfect world. Often, passages in which tenets of unbiased, considerate behavior are imparted to the children come across more like a Jim Anderson lecture from “Father Knows Best” than the frank, mature, eye-opening perceptions of life spoken by Atticus Finch. Cline’s production lack the urgency, outrage, and fervor that would give it the necessary dramatic intensity it lacks.
This isn’t the Cline that made an audience anxiously apprehensive about the fate of Anne Frank even though we know the ending, or the Cline that drew us so close to the struggle between Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, or the Cline who understood the essence of a failed Broadway musical so well, he made a flop, “Ghost,” into a memorable hit.
I don’t know whether it’s the director’s Southern routes, or some special regard for Lee that made him so heavy-handed on this occasion, but getting through the Media’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a tough slog. Lee’s story is the same as the one that has become so beloved, Sergel’s script is not the most inspired but it is serviceable, and Stineman, Dake, Rucidlo, and others such as Hillary Parker, John Baxter, Tim Woodward, Jr., and Tamara Woods, provide telling anchors to their characters. The only possible verdict is “too much respect” leading to too little liveliness, a “To Kill a Mockingbird” more etched in commemorative alabaster than vibrantly, or poignantly, unfolding on stage.
Glacial slowness is apparent from the beginning. You understand that a group of singers from a local Baptist church, non-actors who are already assembled as a choir when they perform most Sundays, might not be schooled in the movement or pace it takes to gather a crowd on stage. You forgive that trespass in the name of being charitable to the amateur and enjoy the hymn the choir, representing their Alabama counterparts, sings in an effort to solicit donations for an incarcerated man’s wife and family, struggling even more than most during the Depression while he languishes, perhaps falsely accused, in jail.
But then the speaking starts, and all sounds like an English lesson rather than a play. Every syllable characters utter seems slow and pointedly articulated, as if each phoneme contained a pearl of wisdom that could not be lost or unheard. Hillary Parker, as the Finch’s neighbor, Miss Maudie, and Virginia Barrie, as the snoopier, more opinionated Miss Stephanie, pick up the pace a tad, but even their conversation seems less natural than preserved for posterity. Everyone in the Maycomb, Alabama in 1935 behaves as if he or she is a spokesperson presenting a point of view to an audience, as if he or she is an expositional figure in a play, rather than a warm-blooded human being having conversations and sharing information. Only Tamara Woods, as the Finches’ housekeeper and governess, Calpurnia, seems to move and speak like a living person with a purpose in the early going that established the production’s pace. The others, adult or child (except for Woodward), enunciate and emphasize phrases as if a marksman was in the balcony waiting to pick them off if they dared to sound like someone actually talking. It be…came num…bing to lissss-tenn to the ooo-ver-read ca-dennnn-ces of evv-e-ry-day speech. It was like the production hung perpetually in space and never came down to Earth.
It wasn’t only that the dialogue did not flow, for all Parker and Barrie tried to help it along, but that all seemed artificial, as if the actors practiced their exchanges line by line and chose particular words to stress. All becomes too self-conscious and orchestrated for effect rather than communication. This trait was especially noticeable in the children, Lexi Gwynn as the observant, petulant Scout, and Brayden Orpello-McCoy as Jem. It’s like they were indulging in some vocal version of overgesticulation, to underscore individual words instead of jabbering freely, as children would.
The pace and the tone of the production allows you to see the seams in Lee’s story. It did not flow like a dynamic, seminal, time-honored tale but plodded along like a dragged-out lecture. This is “To Kill a Mockingbird” as medicine, as opposed to entertainment. It takes itself too seriously for its own good and becomes preachy and leaden.
Matthew Miller’s set did not help Cline much. Instead of a handsome, if aging, Southern town, Miller supplied horizontal rows of rough-hewn wooden boards, with some gaps, as if he was building a solid wall from lumber, a wall could look slapdash and be unattractive because it wouldn’t be seen by anyone passing. Besides being repulsively ugly, the wall made Maycomb look like a collection of poor shacks. You never get the idea that you’re looking at a person’s home, let alone one they keep well or could be proud of. A rocking chair and flowers, obviously fake, stage left, and two lawn chairs on each side of a table, with some unconvincing greenery, stage right, did not serve well for Mrs. Dubose’s garden-surrounded porch, or Atticus’s patio. Cline, as usual, used slides to depict the Finch, Dubose, and Radley houses, as well as a courthouse, jail, and municipal building, but the images, in black-and-white, to keep, I guess, with 1935, do not convey real places that had any sense of permanence or the comforts of a residence. The wooden slats Miller nailed up on both sides of the stage make the Finch and Dubose homes seem coarse and unhospitable. You can’t imagine the Finches living in their purported home, too far stage right to serve the play’s needs, and Susan Wefel’s ancient fussbudget of an aware-she’s-dying Mrs. Dubose wouldn’t stand for unadorned, wooden slats with no discernible windows for five seconds, let alone for nearly 100 years.
Worst of all is Miller’s center stage construction. It is composed of the same broken-down slats but has a large portion of board missing so you can see the projections on Cline’s screen.
The problem is the slats obscure some images and interrupt entire scenes which Miller’s set forces to be acted too far upstage anyhow. A crucial scene in which Atticus takes armed guard at the jail, so he can protect his black client from a lynch mob, loses luster and poignance, in spite of good work by Stineman and Tim Haney, because it takes place so distantly removed from the audience, is necessarily cramped into the narrow space Miller’s set allows, and gets partially blocked by some of the set’s construction. The dramatic and well-played is obscured and removed from any intense immediacy. Stineman, Haney, and Lexi Gwynn create a vibrant moment, and their labor goes for naught because the action occurs too uncomfortably far from where one can appreciate it. A scene that should cause anxiety was relegated to the matter-of-fact.
Which is too often the sad case of Cline’s production. It doesn’t move or impress. Except for scenes between Stineman and Dake, or involving Rucidlo, in the courtroom, this “To Kill a Mockingbird” registers as inert and devoid of importance. Just the opposite of the effect Cline usually achieves.
Sure, you glean the intelligence of all Lee imparts and perceive the themes and morals of the piece, but the experience is academic and sterile. It’s more like going to a class and hearing a patient teacher explain the right way humans should treat each other than like absorbing ideas, as should happen in the theater.
Rucidlo, by pure emotional power, and a full depiction of a character that goes beyond stereotype and elicits empathy for a woman committing a villainous act, saves the day and provides the real goods “Mockingbird” is made of in Act Two. In the same set of sequences, Stineman and Dake take off the gloves and forget the mechanical nature of Cline’s production. Their courtroom confrontations have bite and spunk. A real completion is going on, and both attorneys are up for it, Dake’s Horace Gilmer being quick and frequent with his objections, Stineman’s Finch patiently and potently sifting out the truth and drawing shrewd conclusions. Surprisingly and delightfully, John Baxter’s tenderness, bravery, and childlike awkwardness as the feared, maligned, and taunted Boo Radley provide the truest, most authentic, most unmitigated, and most moving section of Cline’s staging.
Too bad that Baxter’s sequences come at the end of the show . The genuine human emotion it elicits is welcome but arrives too late to support a lost production.
No one in Media’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gives a bad or substandard performance, and Stineman, Rucidlo, Dake, Baxter, and Parker are beyond admirable in their contributions, but the lumbering, methodical, overdone elements in the production defeat all but some courtroom fireworks and Baxter’s sweet, elegant turn as Boo.
One actor that has not so far received the accolade he deserves is Travis Keith Battle, who gives quiet dignity and ingenuous sincerity to Tom Robinson, the young black farmworker who is on trial for raping Rucidlo’s Mayella.
Robinson rings so thoroughly of goodness, you, like Scout, cannot fathom how a jury can convict him of violence, let alone battery and unwilling sexual invasion. Part of the excellence of Rucidlo’s performance is how she reacts, when eyes would not normally be on Mayella, to Tom’s testimony and villainization. She reveals her character’s shame at accusing an innocent she loves more than she loves her family but can’t admit to loving because Tom is of a different, disparaged race. Battle, meanwhile, is the picture of decency, an earnest man who is believed but won’t go free because the jury, all white, is trained by community convention to convict a black defendant who is accused of crime by a white “victim.”
The children in the production suffer from the meticulous care taken to keep it from being raucous. Gwynn, Orpello-McCoy, and Woodward run and jump around and get under foot, but they stop on a dime and look rehearsed and on some kind of time clock, rather than behaving like your garden variety active children. Only the mischievous Woodward escapes making the kids’ outburst seem clockwork. You can see the devil in him, and he runs and plays less self-consciously than his juvenile castmates.
Tim Woodward, Sr. is a feisty Bob Ewell. P. Brendan Mulvey expresses exasperation well as the judge. Kelly Briggs, as the sheriff, manages to bring the production into closer focus in two scenes, particularly the one in which he is explaining to Atticus how he ascertained someone died by falling on his knife.
Alas, this “To Kill a Mockingbird” is strongest in its final moments. I keep thinking Cline may have been working too hard to give each story in the play its due. A son of the South, he may have seen firsthand the prejudice Lee so clearly depicts. Certainly, the threads about Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. judged as they are by traits other impute rather than by their actual character or personality, Tom for a trait he cannot control, speak to that. As does one stunning projection, the only one that made me gasp, of a Confederate flag, in full color, that appears at a pivotal moment. (Even the regular use of the n-word was not as startling or potent.) Courtroom scenes played better than others because real confrontation was afoot rather than a depiction of stock incidents that allow Atticus, Miss Maudie, or Brigg’s sheriff to spout a moral. Stineman and Dake are determined sparring partners who go toe to toe and respond to each other with terse alacrity while Mulvey is a sharp referee and Baxter, in a nameless role, shouts a timely positive word about Tom Robinson’s decency from the spectators’ section. I don’t know that continued play will pick up the production’s pace and make it stronger and less tedious with time. Human nature and dramatic intensity seem too absent from the staging to be recovered.
For the sake of familiarization, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about a thoughtful widowed attorney, Atticus Finch, who is raising his two children, Scout and Jem, is Maycomb County, Alabama. Scout and Jem have been taunted by classmates and other children because Atticus has been assigned to defend a young black man he knows to be innocent and upstanding in a rape case involving a young woman whose morals may not be questionable but whose father’s are. The crux of the court case isn’t so much the man, Tom Robinson’s, guilt or innocence but whether a black man accused of manhandling a white woman can get a fair trial of any kind in Maycomb. Atticus was appointed as Tom’s defense counsel because his probity, stature, logic, and legal skills might convince a most likely pre-determined jury to do the right thing and acquit Tom. In the background is Scout’s fear, based on rumors, of a neighbor, Boo Radley, who injured his father in a stabbing incident and never leaves his house. Gossips living near the Finches add to the buzz about the Robinson and Radley cases. One neighbor, Miss Maudie, is more reasonable and is of help to Atticus by understanding him and keeping an extra eye on Scout and Jem. A live-in cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, also minds the Finch children and is their principal guardian after Atticus. Lee shows a town in uproar over an incendiary trial. She also concentrates on how Atticus, with the help of Calpurnia and Miss Maudie, tries to train Scout and Jem to avoid the prejudices, superstitions, and ancient fears perpetuated by their neighbors. The relationship between this father and his children is as important as race relations in Lee’s story. It can be more focused in the Media production.
Katie Yamaguchi did an excellent job in designing or choosing costumes. The white and light gray suits in which she dresses Stineman and Dake are especially good. Troy Martin O’Shea’s lighting artistically enhanced some scenes and gave a sense, at one critical juncture, of time passing. Old-time country music, the kind you might hear at the Grand Ole Opry in the ’30s, set an interesting tone before Cline’s production commenced. It made me think and gave me hope for texture that, unfortunately, did not emerge.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs through Sunday, February 21, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Please check the Media website for schedule variations and 10 a.m. performances. Tickets are $45, with discounts and premium seats available. They can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting http://www.mediatheatre.org.