Monday, April 20, 2009

Brooklyn Center: To Kill a Mockingbird

He is the greatest movie hero of all-time according to the AFI, but Atticus Finch would never describe himself that way. The protagonist of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel and Robert Mulligan’s Academy Award winning film is a father, a lawyer, and a Southern gentleman—perhaps the only true one to be found in depression-era Maycomb, Alalbama. On Sunday, Atticus Finch also graced the stage of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts with a performance of the Montana Repertory Theatre’s signature touring production of Christopher Sergel’s theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Every high school graduate and film lover should know the story of Mockingbird, which Sergel effectively telescopes a two-hour two-act play. As the production opens, young tomboy Scout and her older brother Jem do not know what to make of their father Atticus. Instead of hunting and fishing, he reads. They also do not know what to make of their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, but their imagination concocts plenty of wild stories. Theirs is a simple, innocent childhood, until Atticus takes on the case of Tom Robinson, an African American falsely accused of raping the white-trash daughter of the abusive town drunk.

Suddenly, the Finch children are the subject of racist taunts at school and see just how ugly adults can act, even witnesses the spectacle of a lynch mob first-hand. They also gain a greater appreciate for their father, and a fuller understanding of things like courage, integrity, and responsibility. That knowledge comes at a high price: the death of their innocence.

Mockingbird is a rich story, steeped in the author’s deep Southern roots. Sergel nicely retains all the character and color of Lee’s language. However, the primary mirrored geometrically shaped set (intended to reflect the audience) is bit of an anachronistic distraction. To further reinforce that feeling of collective responsibility, the audience watches Robinson’s trial from the vantage point of the jury box.

In truth, the young actors sometimes come across precocious and somewhat affected. Fortunately though, once the trial begins, the power of the story kicks in, and the adult actors rise to the occasion. Robert Karma Robinson evokes the understandable fear and confusion of Robinson, heightening the tension of the courtroom scenes. Physically truer to the character than the Oscar-winning Gregory Peck, Mikel MacDonald brings a dignified gravity to the role of Atticus Finch. His bearing and look (complete with white suit) bring to mind Tom Wolfe, but that is not inappropriate for a Southern gentleman of learning.

Nearly forty-nine years after its original publication, Mockingbird remains a powerful story. Like in Mulligan’s film, when Finch leaves the courtroom, you cannot help get a little choked up. It is a rewarding stage experience, which the Montana Rep will bring to cities in Ohio and Wisconsin in coming weeks. It also proved a good fit for stage of the Brooklyn Center, a comfortable, surprisingly spacious venue that will conclude their current season on May 17th with a production of Annie.

(Photo: Laurie Lane)