As a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and a movie that has become a modern classic, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has long been an American standard of excellence. Playwright Christopher Sergel’s fine stage adaptation continues this tradition.
Condensed into the small Lyceum Theater playing area at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University, this latest examination of courage and bigotry in 1935 Alabama still touches the mind and the heart in equal measure. This time period must be remembered by playgoers who may be disheartened by the frequent use of what has come to be known as “the N word.”
That word is fired like a shotgun throughout director Marianne Savell’s handsome Vanguard production, even by those who mean no offense. It’s the fulcrum for Lee’s account of a decent African-American man falsely accused of raping a trashy young white woman.
Defense of this man falls on the shoulders of one of fiction’s most iconic figures — widowed lawyer Atticus Finch, about whom few can think without conjuring an image of Gregory Peck on his route to an Oscar a half-century ago. Finch is raising two young children in a town where his sensitivity and moderation seem at odds with the lynch-mob tenor of its citizens.
The role demands an inner strength laced with an admirable sense of ironic humor, and Vanguard has these qualities in abundance in the person of its technical director and veteran actor Paul Eggington. Physically imposing and emotionally unflappable, Eggington turns in an excellent interpretation at the head of a strong ensemble cast.
Particularly impressive is Danae Hayes-Macpherson as his pugnacious daughter, Scout. Though a senior at Vanguard, the actress is slight enough of physique to be convincing as a pre-teen girl and powerful enough to enhance her conscientious character in a beautifully modulated performance.
Her playmates, brother Jem (Christopher Orta) and visiting runaway Dill (Christopher Huntley), also come off quite well, as does the stern maid Calpurnia, a role shared by Kimberly Monks and Dekontee Tucrkile. Neighbor lady Miss Maudie (Katelyn Spurgin) serves nicely as both a sympathetic character and the story’s narrator.
Sarah Maresh contributes a heart-rending cameo as the “victim,” amplifying her fictitious account of her ordeal with uneducated vitriol on the witness stand. Michael Fidalgo is strong as her murderous redneck father, though he’d need to stand on a soapbox to properly spit in the face of the towering Eggington.
Preston Butler III offers an agonizingly touching account of the accused black man, so obviously innocent yet so obviously doomed. Zach Simons is fine as the moderate town sheriff, while Anna De La Cour adds emotional static as a bigoted neighbor lady.
In addition to playing the leading role, Eggington also designed the well-appointed three-dwelling set, leaving enough room for instant conversion to a courtroom. Director Savell’s choice of musical background is quite impressive, as are the period costumes designed by Lia Hansen.
As a work of theater, or literature, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has become a modern classic. Its compelling emotional grasp is well depicted in this revival at Vanguard University.
TOM TITUS covers the local theater scene for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Where: Vanguard University Lyceum Theater, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Cost: $12 to $14
Call: (714) 668-6145