None of the controversies surrounding the publication of Harper Lee's long-lost novel, "Go Set a Watchman," has caused more debate than its depiction of the beloved lawyer Atticus Finch as a cranky segregationist vehemently opposed to civil rights.
Set in 1956 — 20 years after the events of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and sharing many of the same characters — "Watchman" chronicles a grown-up Scout's disillusionment with her father when she discovers he is not the champion of tolerance and racial equality she had idolized.
Longtime admirers of Atticus Finch find themselves in the same boat. But not Ellen Geer, director of the current, fortuitously timed dramatization of "To Kill a Mockingbird" that is running in repertory at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.
"Isn't that the American way, to make idols?" Geer asked. She welcomes the complexity of an alternative take on Atticus.
"To the young Scout [in 'Mockingbird'], Atticus was a hero, as all fathers are heroes for young girls. But if they really searched their souls, any hero who is supposed to be a god always has the little chips in them, don't they?" Geer said. "I think that's being a human being."
Atticus, Geer added, "he's a Southern man, that's his background." Although the Atticus in her production honors "Mockingbird's" appeal to social conscience and the better angels in our nature, Geer sought a gruffer, grittier portrayal by casting actor Richard Tyson in the role.
"I really wanted somebody from Alabama — Southern warmth with a real sharp tang — and that's Richard," Geer said. "He comes out of that world. He totally understands those people."
Tyson, whose own father was an Alabama lawyer and a state senator during the turbulent civil rights era, confirmed Geer's approach to his portrayal.
"If you're coming to see our play and you're expecting to see a quiet, composed Gregory Peck, you're not going to find him," Tyson said.
He chose a more heated interpretation, because "for me, it's about passion, the heart of Dixie. I mean it in a good way. I'm not endorsing slavery, but there were a lot of good things about the Southern way of life. People were close, most people got along. As society grows up, we understand more and more, but it's hard to judge from our perspective where they were then."
"It's tricky," Tyson added, referencing the "Watchman" passage in which Scout surreptitiously observes Atticus at a citizens' council meeting where racist views are openly espoused (a disturbing parallel to "Mockingbird's" younger Scout sneaking in to watch Atticus defend a wrongly accused black man).
"Scout was shocked that Atticus would sit there and condone the stances of most of those people. But back then, these views were prevalent. So the question is, do you not want to be on the council and not even have a voice?" Tyson asked.
The possibility of Atticus holding racist views hasn't diminished Tyson's appreciation for the character he is playing.
"He may look idealized from Scout's point of view, but it's still an amazing thing that he does," he said. "He was appointed to the case by a judge, but he stood up for a black man that he recognized even in 1935 as a man. It was a very brave stance on his part, and I think he should be celebrated. As they say in the play: 'baby steps.' "