Powerful stage version of 'Mockingbird'

By now, many of us have read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial tensions in the Depression-era South. Some of us have even seen the 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. But how many of us have ever seen a stage version?

Can it be done, you ask, given the novel’s various locations? Oddly enough, since the early 1990s a play based on the novel has been performed every year in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. So yes, it can be done, and can currently be seen at the Glendale Centre Theatre, which is running one very faithful, moving stage adaptation.

Maycomb, Ala., is the setting, and early on we meet the tomboyish Scout and her brother Jem. Scout is prone to mischief, and dares her brother and his friend Dill to touch the house of their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. Of course Dill is hesitant in doing it but still does, probably because he doesn't want to look fearful in front of Scout. She already called him “puny” after their initial meeting, and although she’s a girl, it would seem that Scout’s toughness and charm has made her the group’s leader.

The three child actors playing the roles, Camille Gibney as Scout, Liam Johnson as Jem and Carter Thomas as Dill, had a wonderful chemistry onstage, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all best friends in real life. They could be serious when necessary, as in the second-act trial scene when they all quietly watched Atticus question Tom Robinson, his only witness and defendant.

With dumbfounded looks on their faces, they appeared as children who were listening to testimony that was probably too adult for them. But they could also be playful as well, like when they ran around the porch carefree, refusing to go in the house when a mad dog is loose on their block. Whereas a lot of the credit goes to the child actors, a director like Diedra Celeste Miranda, who can elicit such authentic performances from three child actors, deserves far more accolades.

As Atticus Finch, Thor Edgell not only looked how one might think of the distinguished lawyer, with his mane of salt-and-peppered hair and white suit, but his big, booming voice also sounded how we think Atticus might sound, thanks to Gregory Peck’s memorable performance in the film version. We’re first introduced to that booming voice of Edgell’s within minutes of the opening act, when he scolds Jem for clowning around with Dill in their front yard.

Of course our cultural perception of Atticus Finch is one of a saintly figure, who went against the mores of his day, and defended a black man accused of raping and beating a white women, and Edgell did a wonderful job of playing the moral, good-natured Atticus. He was always intense, always standing upright, even after he’s spat on in the face, and most importantly, always honest. When Atticus is under the assumption that Jem committed murder in an act of self-defense, Edgell looked deep into the sheriff’s eyes and insisted on turning his son in, seeing that it was the ethical thing to do. This may sound foolish, but how can we expect anything less from Atticus Finch?

If you’re a fan of the book or movie, the play version might be the most rewarding way to experience Atticus, Jem and Scout. Because as good as “To Kill a Mockingbird” is in the book and film formats, it’s even better live and in person.

JAMES FAMERA is a freelance arts critic based in Los Angeles.


What: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays until March 12

Where: Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale

Tickets: $23 to $26, with group rates available for 15 or more

Contact: www.glendalecentretheatre.com

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