In the early 1960’s, while an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, I found myself in the beautiful Paramount Theater attending the opening run of “To Kill A Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck. I was not alone in finding this classic film version of Harper Lee’s novel to be both a touching masterpiece and an insightful revelation of matters of race in America. It tells the story of a caring and honest lawyer, Atticus Finch (Michael Poisson) who defends Tom Robinson (Eugene Sumlin), a hard-working, humble, black family man falsely accused of rape. The tale still speaks to the heart with truth today; and I had the opportunity to experience it with a new generation when invited to attend a recent student-audience performance of the Barter Theatre’s outstanding current production. Christopher Sergel wrote the fine play, based on Miss Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, and retaining the original title. The small town tale is set in Macomb, Alabama of the mid-1930’s. We are told that “…even in 1935 Macomb County was already an old town with nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and nothing to buy it with.”
At curtain time there was an excited buzz of anticipation from the youthful audience. Then came the dramatic choral entry of the full cast as they sang the Macomb County Anthem while coming on stage. Scenic Designer, Daniel Ettinger’s set was already transporting us back to the dusty, depression era town and the Finch family home. The flexible set, with large open spaces to accommodate the large cast, would quickly transform into both jailhouse and courthouse. The shadowy lighting designs of E.Tonry Lathroum would bring added mystery to this courtroom drama.
We meet Atticus’ two young children, Jeremy (nick named, “Jem”), played with great youthful skill by Ryan Cury, and his sister Scout, played at this performance by Annie Grace Surber. Luke Daniel Bart plays the role of their visiting young friend, Dill. All the children give convincing performances, but Mr. Cury was particularly noteworthy for his very natural charm and his especially clear and deliberate diction, which allowed every word to be clearly heard. One hopes to see more of him at Barter.
Josephine Hall brings Southern grace to the character of the friendly neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson. Miss Maudie also steps aside occasionally to serve as narrator in guiding us on this journey to Macomb. Another neighbor is the prim town gossip, Miss Stephanie Crawford, humorously played, with great wide eyes, by Karen Sabo. Evalyn Baron elegantly portrays the crotchety neighbor, Mrs. DuBose. Virginia Wing is convincing as the dependable Finch family housekeeper, Calpurnia. Costume Designer, Amanda Aldridge has nicely costumed the ladies (and really the entire cast) in restrained depression styles.
Jasper McGruder has all the passion of a fiery minister and gives a warm performance as the black Reverend Sykes. He and his congregation bring some wonderful gospel music moments to the show, and all these members of the cast are in fine voice. They stand staunchly by Tom Robinson and Sumlin’s low-key performance as the accused has great power. There is a lynch mob scene full of terror. As Robinson’s attorney, Finch, Mr. Poisson has the wise, kind, and determined manner we would probably all want in a defender. John Hedges is excellent portraying a Sheriff Tate who seems to know the truth the jury cannot acknowledge. Jon Vandertholen gives us an even-handed Judge Taylor.
A calming black gospel chorus opened the courtroom scene of Act II. John Hardy is perfect as the ultimate racist bumpkin redneck, Bob Ewell, whose daughter Mayella (Catherine Gray) has accused Robinson of raping her. Miss Gray gives a frenetic and brilliant portrayal as the hysterical, lying witness. Mike Ostoski did very well in dual roles as Mr. Gilmer, the Public Prosecutor, and as the mysterious, reclusive and mentally challenged neighbor “Bo” Radley.
The Barter Theatre and Director, Richard Rose, have another winner on their hands. The play may not have just the ending we would have wished, but it certainly conveys the message Atticus delivers to his children: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”