“A sprawling, somewhat old-fashioned family entertainment that floods the stage with actors and scenery”: that’s how New York Times critic Stephen Holden described a 1991 production of a version of Christopher Sergel’s To Kill A Mockingbird, adapted from the Pulitzer prize-winning 1960 Harper Lee novel of the same name. He might have been describing the current co-production by Dallas Theater Center and Fort Worth’s Casa Manana, running through October 2 in Fort Worth, moving to Dallas October 21, where it will run at the Wyly Theatre through November 20. It’s a graceful, genteel production, majestic at times, honoring in spirit, if not in depth character development or dialogue, the timeless, classic beauty of the book and relevant potency of its themes.
Its subject matter involves racial injustice, rape and the destruction of innocence, told primarily, as in the book, from a pre-teen girl’s point of view. If that combination would seem to make awkward bedfellows for dramatic realization, it presents challenges in a “family-friendly” production. Adaptor Sergel seemed to acknowledge the quandary, as he “continued revising his ”Mockingbird,” which was intended for middle and high schools, for more than 20 years, even while it was being produced.” The current Dallas Theater Center/ Casa Manana production, directed by Wendy Dann, uses Sergels’s version that tells the tale from the child’s perspective, with her brother and several other children chiming in. On stage performance with children, as with animals, can get dicey. For the most part, the child actor ensemble in “Mockingbird” works effectively. Dann’s tightly paced direction keeps them moving crisply through the story and across Donna Marquet’s open, multi-level set without looking stiffly “blocked”; they occasionally rush lines in unintelligible high pitched agitation but not enough to discomfort or confuse the audience. On the other hand, the adult ensemble is beautifully cast for the period (1930’s) and consists of some of the strongest, most experienced professionals in the region.
It was never obvious that the actor playing focal character Atticus was a last minute replacement for a comrade fallen ill. Kudos to playwright and Raleigh, North Carolina’s Theatre in the Park Executive Director Ira David Wood III for stepping into this iconic role with ease and keeping it fresh, even with memory of Gregory Peck’s 1962 Oscar-winning turn haunting his performance. The synchronicity with which the cast serves the play with simple elegance and creates images that ably illustrate Lee’s classic work help to ameliorate the script’s superficial exploration of the story’s crucial conflicts and moral dilemmas. It’s an ideal vehicle with which to introduce young audiences to live theater and issues of tolerance.
Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director of Dallas Theater Center, recognized the potential for vibrant region-wide educational outreach this production offered. “Dallas Theater Center is committed to inspiring a meaningful dialogue with our community through live theater. Our production of To Kill a Mockingbird is a prime example of this goal… it demonstrates our commitment to creating collaborations within our community. We believe that arts and community organizations are strongest when we work together.” Both arts non-profits have enlisted public libraries for major Community Read outreach. Thus far, DTC has booked in over 3,000 students from forty-two schools and c.1000 students from thirty-four schools with Project Discovery to attend student matinees of the production. Casa Manana hosted 600 students at its student preview night; approximately 800 students will attend their student matinee performance. Casa Manana partnered with Score A Goal in the Classroom to sponsor a 2011 Essay Competition for To Kill A Mockingbird. From a field of worthy entrants, Cleburne High School Senior James Guenthner won the competition. Read his winning essay below.
DTC/CASA Manana Community Read Project: http://www.dallastheatercenter.org/subpage.php?sid=110#roster_bkmark
Community Read DTC, Casa Manana, Fort Worth and Dallas Public libraries:
About yearly Monroeville play performances (Harper Lee’s hometown):
“High season for Monroeville is May, when the Monroe County Heritage Museums puts on a stage version of Mockingbird. The event is a morality play of sorts, a migration of pilgrims paying homage to the powerful sermon of the story. 30,000 visitors a year…..you will not be hearing from Harper Lee here. She no longer gives interviews. (“Hell no” was a response to one inquirer.)”
Two informative NYTimes articles about the play adaptation:
2011 Essay Competition Winning Essay
Bigotry ends when people are brave enough to step up and be a lantern in the darkest times, and Harper Lee was the harbinger of light for our country in just such a time. Hate is as “old as love, as old as fear, and as ancient as any deep rooted feeling in the human psyche, so in response we, as a human collective, must step forward to defend the rights of those that may be mistreated or abused by that vile, ancient emotion. Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird recognized this and formed such strong opinions about it that she wove together a tale that revealed the power of that vanguard of equality. Atticus Finch, an honest, hard working, and kind man, was the embodiment of this necessary good in the hearts of people, and in the most grand and, at the time, unbelievable setting, a court of law, he let loose one of the greatest orations of any work of literature to the small town assembled there. “In the name of God” he pleaded for the jury to think with reason and without emotional bias towards Tom as he sat, hated, by the white majority surrounding him, and while it was a moving speech, full of valor and righteous appeal, it did nothing to sway the jury. Yet, losing that one battle began to change the minds of people everywhere as Lee attempted to, through Atticus, make a racist culture “see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” People are inherently afraid to accept, to understand, and to attempt to love other people and their differences, and this theme laid, heavy handed, upon the shoulders of Atticus as he defended an innocent who, at the time, was only viewed as a lesser being, who was raised that white is right and all others are secondhand nothings.
Lee’s novel, along with the movement already building at the time helped to stem the tide of racism that swelled in our nation’s heart. She was Atticus in a world that was always too afraid to fight for right. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t a tale of growing up only for scout, but for all of us, as a society, of learning that our world is actually big enough for all of us despite our color, ethnicity, religion, creed, or any other factor. This thought that rings like a bell throughout T.K.A.M is universally applicable to us all, from the youngest to the oldest, and will continue to apply until humanity is just dust on the ground. Undoubtedly, we all should recall daily that justice deserves to be defended, that we owe all people a chance to be themselves in peace and harmony with the whole world. Atticus and Lee fought for this against all odds, and, as her novel indicates, it is only right that we do the same today, tomorrow, and for time eternal.