Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
“Miss Jean Louise. Stand up. You’re father’s passing.”
This is one of the most powerful and memorable lines from Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and it never fails to elicit an emotional response.
It happened again at the opening night performance Friday (Sept. 20) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center (EPAC).
To Kill a Mockingbird, the play, is narrated in retrospect by a little girl, now grown. The story, about the glacial evolution of race relations in the Deep South, is set in the 1930s when the Great Depression was impacting people on all sides of the socio-economic and racial divide.
It is also a story about coming of age. The lessons of decency and justice that a widowed father must teach his children are amplified by the circumstances in which they are embroiled.
Atticus Finch is a white attorney defending Tom Robinson, a black defendant, in a case of sexual assault euphemistically referred to as his “having taken advantage of Miss Mayella Ewell.”
Atticus knows that Tom is certainly innocent, and can prove it, but he fully expects to lose in the first round. His deep sense of morality and humanity won’t allow him to decline the chance to speak Tom’s truth to power (aka a judge and jury in pre-civil rights Alabama).
In the process, he also learns a lot about the plaintiff in the case and takes her struggles into account when he drills down for the truth.
He focuses also on his own children, daughter Jean Louise (known as Scout) and son Jem, and the intransigence of the racist society in which he must raise them. In the midst of all that, his compassion for all involved is still paramount to him.
This production is about as close to the 1962 film as the limits of EPAC’s movie-house stage can allow.
I have read the book at least twice and have seen the movie more times than I can count, but I still learned more about the better, and lesser-known, characters from these actors’ interpretations. In a televised interview on WBNG, director Matt Gaska praises his cast members and their openness to portraying some very intense and difficult roles. Racial epithets are not only spoken, but, in some cases, shouted, so be advised.
As the adult Scout, Jean Graham narrates, advancing the story through memories spoken in a perfect, credible Southern accent. She is present on stage for most of the two-act play but cannot, of course, interact with the others on stage. That is undoubtedly harder than it looks.
The scenes play out largely against two backdrop: the dusty neighborhood where the Finches, Crawfords, Atkinsons, Duboses and Radleys live, and the courtroom where the trial of Tom Robinson takes place.
Rick Kumpon, as the somewhat testy Judge Taylor, plays to the courtroom but also to the audience, through a fourth wall, with “we the people” in the seats as the jury and court reporter.
The Finch children are central to the story, with the precious Sadie Dutcher as Scout, towheaded Timothy Dreher as Jem and, in an interesting casting choice, the adaptable Leah Riquier as their friend Dill, who spends his own pivotal summer with the Finch kids. Dill was modeled on Truman Capote, who was acquainted with a young Harper Lee. All three of these young actors did a wonderful job, without any of the wooden delivery that youngsters often present.
The pace of the play is, at times, a little slow. Without the benefit of microphones, however, some effort is required to hear some of the younger voices, so, speak up, kids. The object is to keep the audience’s attention for the full two-and-a-half-hour run time. Much easier when the volume is there.
Although Scout and Jem are motherless and Dill is only occasionally missed by his family in another county, the children have other maternal figures to help fill the gap, notably the family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia. A woman of color, she minds the white children with equal parts strictness and affection. Shanna Hall is authentic and moving in the role.
Chris Nickerson as Atticus has earned the role of a lifetime, and he doesn’t squander it. He may have taken a few cues from Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the film, but he makes it his own in this show. The tenderness he feels for his friends and family, even those with whom he disagrees, is clear. Still waters run deep for Atticus Finch, and Nickerson navigates them smoothly.
Andrea Gregori plays Maudie Atkinson, the unmarried neighbor lady who is clearly sweet on Atticus but is ever respectful of his role as a dad and the priority the children in his life. Gregori exhibits here glimpses of her own signature role, that of opera diva Maria Callas, which I hope you will have a chance to see someday if she reprises it. I think Maudie is a little less confident, however, than Maria.
Paula Bacorn is funny as Stephanie Crawford, a gossipy neighbor, but Dianna Wayman got the most out-loud laughter as Mrs. Dubose, a busybody with an agenda.
Peyton Hawkes plays Nathan Radley, who does come out from time to time, and the pasty Jamie Cook is Boo Radley, who doesn’t. Their story is almost as tragic as Tom Robinson’s, as they too are recipients of prejudice. Cook reminded me a little of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands.
Tom Robinson, a man afraid of death at the hands of his false accusers, is played compellingly by Steve Taylor. Tormented by Bob Ewell and his daughter, Mayella, Taylor is sympathetic and riveting as a character who struggles to be respectful and candid when there’s so much more he wishes he could say and so much for him to lose.
Stefani Jump is unwashed and haughty as Mayella Ewell. (Jump handled a set-piece mishap opening night that nearly unseated her, without dropping character. Great presence of mind.) Jon Campbell as her drunken pa, is perhaps a little too young to be Jump’s father, but his interpretation is equal parts righteousness and vulgar indignation, if there is such a thing.
Foster Daniels is perfect as Reverend Sykes, who utters that famous line I mentioned at the opening of this review. He brings the gravitas necessary to Sykes.
Also in supporting roles are Adara Alston as Helen Robinson, Tom’s devastated wife; Dustin Van Tassel as Mr Gilmer, and Mike Clark as impoverished hayseed Walter Cunningham who becomes part of a lynch mob that includes John Stephens, Faith Stephens, Lorelei Cole, Debbie Mallen, Kevin Yeager, Jada Newman, Alex Ernst, Scott Newman, Isis Mini, Chelsea Packard and Hillory Schenker.
Eli Carlin is fine as Sheriff Heck Tate, whose own prejudices evolve into compassion by the end of the play, as just enough Atticus rubs off on him to demonstrate the point.
IF YOU GO: The final performance is at 3 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 22) at EPAC, 102 WashingtonAve., Endicott. Tickets: Visit www.Endicottarts.com or call 785-8903.