Must-see 'Mockingbird' at Trinity Rep

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I wholeheartedly recommend Trinity Rep’s uplifting and enlightening production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Harper Lee’s classic American tale is, as ever, timeless and timely. But Director Brian McEleney and a crackerjack cast at Trinity have crafted a production that not only expends upon the story but also positively nourishes the soul. The show is warm, wise and absolutely wonderful; if you only see one play a year make it this one.

The productions directed by veteran Trinity Rep company member Brian McEleney have always been notable for removing distance between the audience and the play. Here, as in his productions of “Our Town”, “The Crucible” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, he ever so slightly changes the onstage environment and by doing so shifts our perceptions a bit. An atmosphere is created that encompasses the audience, one that not only acknowledges our presence but invites us to be a vital part of the community created here. More than mere spectators we become complicit in this creation and in these events depicted.

So it is apt, for the many important lessons imparted here, that our setting is seemingly a schoolroom. And that is where after all, most of us first encountered this story. There are no actual schoolroom scenes, this is our symbolic springboard, a frame for the town of Maycomb, Alabama, and, like the Courtroom we will eventually enter, one of country’s civic temples, what Atticus Finch will describe as “the great levelers of society.”

The staging here seems simple and yet also absolutely essential to the needs of this story. The seating configuration is in the round, surrounding a table and those little wooden desks onstage, the cast is interspersed there and all around us in the audience. And nothing more is really needed to tell us that not only are we in Maycomb but that we are all a part of Maycomb.

Throughout the production moments are interjected where the story stops and the actors relate personal stories about themselves. Some of these stories relate to race and identity or bear a correlation to the role the actor is playing, all are very personal confessions, some are incredibly moving. So, why, you may ask, add additional material to, of all writers, Harper Lee? The answer is found in a remark made by her character Atticus as he teaches his children: “never judge a another man until you step in his shoes, until you get in their skin and walk around for a bit.” The onstage testimony reminds us that we are not merely watching made-up characters but living, breathing people with very real cares and concerns. A communal skin is created here, one that envelops us all and adds an extra dimension of empathetic connection.

“All Lawyers were children once”, Scout says at the very start of the book and all actors sometimes still are; retaining a youthful sense of joy in their onstage playing or sometimes being asked to play children. Adult actors play the children Scout, Jem and Dill, this choice too serves the needs of this play very well. The witnessed events and lessons learned in childhood have a lasting effect, they make us who we are and for better or worse we never get over it. In this production too many actors play more than one role and the casting is completely color-blind, black actors play roles as diverse as Jem Finch, Mayella Ewell and old, racist Mrs. Dubose. This is frankly refreshing, especially in a play that asks us to see people as they really are and serves here to not only alter and level our preconceptions but to underline our basic humanity.

All here are adept and expert in their roles. Stephen Thorne, Trinity Rep’s resident everyman, is a simply splendid Atticus. There is an innate sense of decency, as is so often the case, that marks this actor’s ends onstage, a kindly thoughtfulness that is wary and watchful. This gentleness is tempered by a palpably deeply felt sense of right and wrong, a profound love for his children and a sheer respect for reason and the law. I loved how he uttered the oft-repeated line “do you really think so” with a sly sense of exasperation and a sudden uncharacteristic burst of unquiet
desperation. This is a nicely measured portrayal of a man both highly rational and uniquely humane, he saves his fire for the courtroom, but when he hears that verdict it is if the entire weight of the world was on his shoulders.

As his daughter Jean Louise, Angela Brazil is his ‘scout’ but she’s our scout too, always looking to the horizon and trying to decipher the strange events that have beset her small town, She’s quite coltish in the role and serves as our conscience here, her realizations become our realizations as she makes us feel connected to her honest and youthful bemusement. Jude Sandy is wonderful as her big brother Jem, the actor paints a poignant portrait of adolescent yearning, always striving to be a man grown. Mauro Hantman is marvelous as Dill, adept at playing precociousness to perfection, with all of a child’s wide eyed wonder and dismay at the ways of the world.

Fred Sullivan Jr. brings his protean presence to a couple of roles, slipping with the greatest of ease in the courtroom scene from his nicely mannered and forthright Sheriff Heck Tate to his evilly dissolute Bob Ewell, a man he manages to make seem both sly and thick. Rachael Warren nicely conveys true sense of sweet wisdom as Maude Atkinson.

The entire ensemble abounds with performances that are picture perfect, deft, strong and subtle. Will Turner has a nice turn as a smarmy small town lawyer and Alexis Green is all indigent indignation as Mayella Ewell. David Samuel brings a strong and quiet dignity to his portrayals of Reverend Sykes and Tom Robinson. As Boo Radley Sinan Eczacibasi creates a soft-spoken impression of a damaged man both timorous and courtly.

That this collective of characters functions as a cohesive unit is due in no small part to director McEleney’s sure and easy hands on the reins. The mood created here is almost languid, always intimate and positively neighborly. This makes the action all the more compelling, we witness acts of everyday bravery, heroism and tragedy, deeds done, for good or ill, by the folks next door.

Description diminishes the beautiful experience of bearing witness to “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I was frankly choking back tears before the play ended. See this play. The production at Trinity Rep deftly captures the essence of this story that teaches us those essential truths that were inside us all along. We need reminding that reason can shine a light on hate and illuminate it for the ugliness it is, that sometimes adults and even teachers can be wrong and that most folks are real nice, when you finally see them. These cherished lessons well worth heeding admonish, sustain and nourish us and we are fortunate to have had such teachers as “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee and Trinity Rep’s Brian McEleney.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” at Trinity Repertory Company is being performed now through April 3. See listings for details, or visit www.trinityrep.com.

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