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It takes a lot of nerve to produce a play of a widely-known classic novel, especially one getting lots of attention for its 50th birthday, and even more especially one that has previously been adapted for the screen by another legendary writer — and the nerve quotient goes up exponentially when that film starred the madly handsome master of understatement, Gregory Peck. So Burning Coal Theatre Company is to be congratulated for presenting To Kill a Mockingbird in its Theatre at the Murphy School. The venue is perfect for Harper Lee’s story about race relations in a southern town: The Murphy School was where — also 50 years ago — desegregation of the Raleigh schools began.
Harper Lee’s novel, although powerful and moving, is quite pointed and unambiguous in the lessons it would convey, and it benefitted from Horton Foote’s poignant and unsentimental screenplay. The stage script, by Christopher Sergel, is not as delicate. It has many merits but tends toward the pedagogical. I suspect that this will be a virtue when the play travels to schools around the state where some of the content will need to be spelled out for young audiences less aware of the bad old days, but it seems at times a bit blunt for an adult audience. It does no actual harm to Lee’s story, however, and both the script and the stage design get around a number of scenic problems in very clever ways. Scenic designer Snow, and lighting designer Daniel Winters and costumer Kelly Farrow have created a flexible world that very effectively allows for diverse scenes in the little Alabama town in the depths of the Great Depression.
Atticus Finch, a widower, attorney, and thinking man whose moral compass points true north, is the voice of reason, compassion, and most importantly, law. He is anomalous in his hometown, and actor Roger Rathburn effectively conveys his admirable differences. His portrayal is neither quite as reserved or quite as warm as the role deserves, and he does not quite make the point that Atticus is in his own way a man of action. Rathburn mostly maintains an admirable restraint, but in the crucial courtroom scene in which he makes the story’s keynote speech about equality under the law, he unfortunately overplays.
Atticus is at the heart of heart of the story, but the story is told and carried by his young tomboyish daughter Scout — Miss Jean Louise — looking back from the vantage of age on the sequence of events that led to the trial and death of an innocent man and that took her from ignorant girlhood to an aware adolescence. Scout is one of the most lovable girls in all of literature, and fortunately Liz Beckham is up to the task of bringing her to life. She gives a beautiful, nuanced performance, from the early scene where Scout whips that Cunningham boy’s butt on the schoolyard; to the scene where Scout’s innocent friendliness saves her father’s life, and that of the accused, in front of the jailhouse; to the final moment when Miss Jean Louise walks off with the mysterious Boo Radley. Much of the satisfaction of this production comes from Beckham.
The very young Samantha Rahn also gives wonderful, pitch-perfect performances as the boy Dill and as the ancient Miss Dubose — but she is in no way believable in her third role as prosecuting attorney. Director Randolph Curtis Rand made a casting decision I found most unfortunate (although my respected colleague at The News and Observer thinks the opposite). Not only did he double, triple, or quadruple cast many of the actors (and in one case, sextuple cast!), but he also had five actors appear at different times as one character — the prosecutor. The judge is represented by three actors. The same actor (Jeff Cheek) plays poor white farmer Cunningham, the sheriff, and the judge (sometimes), which is tremendously confusing. The most ridiculous casting, though, is of LeDawna Akins, whose primary role is that of Calpurnia, the black woman who raises Scout and her brother Jem, as the prosecuting attorney grilling the black defendant Tom Robinson (ably portrayed by Jade Arnold). I suppose the purpose of all this was to make the point that society at large prosecutes and judges, but in a play about conflicts between black and white people, between women and men, color-blind and gender-blind casting is ludicrous and ineffective.
Some of the multiple casting worked well, however. Paul Paliyenko is excellent as the sly, despicable Bob Ewell, instigator of all the badness, and equally strong in dress and wig as the mean gossip Miss Stephanie. Paliyenko is good but not so much of a shapeshifter that he can prevent moments of bafflement when he appears as the judge or the prosecutor. Whitney Madren did a fine job as the lying white trash Mayella Ewell and as the gardening lady Miss Maudie — but again, it was mystifying to see her as the judge and the prosecutor. Adam Patterson was fine doubling as the Cunningham boy and as Scout’s older brother — but the prosecutor’s blue jacket fit him not at all.
But what of Boo Radley, of whom we hear much and see little, until the very end? This role belongs to Robert Duvall nearly as firmly as that of Atticus Finch belongs to Gregory Peck, and it matters enormously to the story that he be scary and intriguing in absentia, and respected and lovable when he finally appears to take his life’s one heroic action. Blessedly not also cast as the prosecutor or anyone else, George Spelvin is perfect as Boo — Mr. Arthur Radley — and the lovely closing scene between him and Scout makes up for much of the aggravation in the body of the play.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues at Burning Coal through September 26. See our calendar for details.