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To Kill a Mockingbird

Theatreworks brings darkness to the edge of town in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

FIFTY YEARS after it was first published, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird has passed into American folklore. Set against the stark backdrop of a fictional Alabama town during the Depression, it has become our quintessential race fable. From collective shame to the promise of individual redemption (in the form of white hero Atticus Finch), this story of a lawyer who stands up against prejudice when a young African American man is falsely accused of raping a white woman has got everything—except, as Homer Simpson pointed out, useful information about how to kill a mockingbird. So maybe it’s not surprising that, beginning in 1990, Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., starting putting on what sounds basically like a passion play based on her book. Written by Christopher Sergel, it’s performed by the locals outside the county courthouse, and during the trial scene (during which the action moves inside), the audience is actually segregated by race.

What artistic director Robert Kelley has done with TheatreWorks’ latest production is take this quasi-religious tradition and given it a lavish stagebound treatment. With its lush, epic sets, I’m quite sure what has been created at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts delivers a better small-town Southern evening than Monroeville does. From the Southern Gothic houses that lend the idea of Boo Radley its proper creepiness factor, to the lighting that gives the sunset depth and the shadows texture, it’s a stunning vision of Lee’s work, gorgeous but always with a hint of menace to cut the nostalgia.

Sergel’s adaptation is less than stunning in parts. As a practical consideration, it was probably necessary to take the narration away from the 6-year-old character of Scout, but giving it to Scout’s neighbor Miss Maudie, who often speaks directly to the audience, makes for some awkward expository moments. The “town gossip” humor is hit or miss—and a little cheesy for such a dramatic story. Despite Sergel’s tinkering, the weight of the play still falls on the shoulders of the three main child actors. It’s a good thing they are talented enough to handle it. Eleven-year-old Sierra Stevens is excellent as Scout, delivering a balance of innocence and assertiveness that captures exactly what made Lee’s character one for the ages. Gabriel Hoffman is funny and charming as Dill (a character said to be based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote), and Eric Colvin ably handles the less flashy but essential role of Jem.

Indeed, director Kelley has populated the fictional Macomb with a talented cast. At its geographical and moral center is familiar face Anthony Newfield as the larger-than-life Atticus. As written by Sergel (and to a certain extent, by Lee), he’s more superhero than man in his defense of Tom Robinson (Philipe D. Preston). It would be impossible to completely forget Gregory Peck’s defining portrayal in the 1962 film, but Newfield puts an engrossing spin on the character. The grace and burning passion he brings to the role is also reminiscent of Henry Fonda’s uncanny ability to flesh archetypes out into human beings. Kelley brings intensity and—as usual—innovation to the staging. In particular, he finds a way to make the darkness that always seems to be on the verge of enveloping this town almost a character in itself, with the two most powerful scenes (Atticus in front of the jail and the climactic confrontation) set at night. As Boo Radley taught us, the scariest things in the dark are not the spooky old houses, but the hate and fear in our hearts.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Fridat at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and.or 8pm and Sunday at 2 and/or 7pm through May 9 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $29–$62. (650.463.1960)