Texans have long been proud of their multi-talented state bird, the Mockingbird, with its countless lovely songs. Now they have another reason to be proud with the current fine production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” playing at the Owen Theatre through July 15th. Don Hampton directs with skill for this Crighton Players production that takes us into a world that is at once sweet, while at the same time terrifying. The play is Christopher Sergel’s adaptation for the stage of Harper Lee’s classic novel of love and bigotry in the American South of the 1930’s. It is 1935 to be exact, and before the play begins the scene is nicely set by a series of carefully chosen slide projections depicting American life at the time. Highlights of news headlines, magazine covers, comic books, vintage cars, movie stars, and commercial products were included, and there were even assorted advertisements, some of which certainly smacked of racism and stereotypes when viewed in 21st century hindsight.
The action opens on Mr. Hampton’s rustic and beautifully designed set depicting several run down homes on the dusty street of a poor neighborhood in Macomb, Alabama. Warm lighting illuminates the scene (designer, Scotti Smith), birds are chirping, a distant dog is barking, and then we meet hardworking local attorney, Atticus Finch, played with intense focus and calm reserve by Ken Williams. A widower, Atticus is raising his two small children alone, but has some wonderful help from Calpurnia, the Finch family’s feisty and devoted housekeeper, warmly played by Wanda Deveraux. As for the children, wiry Caleb Glass is terrific as young Jeremy (His nickname is Jem), and little charmer McKaylie Self plays Jean Louise (nicknamed Scout).
Precocious Scout proudly declares, “Atticus couldn’t get along a day without my advice!” The youngsters acquire a new young friend named Dill (Ian Reina) who is visiting the town. Together these three fine young actors form a kind of anchor for a play that deals with serious issues of Old South racism and now and then needs the wise insights that can only come through a child’s eyes. Atticus is a caring and loving father but seems at the outset to lack an intimate connection with his children. That relationship may be symbolized by the fact that they address him as Atticus rather than calling him dad or papa, but by play’s end the youngsters will have new reasons to cherish their father.
Atticus bravely takes on the task of representing Tom, the timid and frightened black youth who is falsely accused of raping a young girl in the town. Da’rel Johnson delivers a quietly powerful performance as Tom. Grace McDaniel gives a disturbing portrayal of troubled Mayella Ewell, the girl who is caught up in the lie her abusive father (Rick Sellers as Mr. Ewell) has concocted to escape blame for abusing his own daughter. Sellers does an excellent job of creating the kind of surly, unpleasant character that audiences love to hate. His tirades are absolutely frightening.
Helping to move the action along is the character of Miss Maudie (Cindy Siple) a sweet neighbor of the Finch family who occasionally steps forward to address the audience on details of the plot. We learn a bit about the mysterious Boo Radley (a sweet portrayal by Steve Murphree) who lives in the house at the end of the street, but is almost never seen. To learn more about him you must buy a ticket. Other neighbors include the busybody, Miss Stephanie (Emma McEachern), and Mrs. DuBose (Marilyn Moore), a cantankerous, mean old woman who frightens the children. When Jem was ordered to go to her house and apologize for disturbing her flowerbed, I was reminded of being ordered as a child to go next door and apologize for my own bad behavior to an equally frightening neighbor, Mrs. Secor.
The plays action moves on to the court of Judge Taylor. Dale Trimble plays the judge and rules his courtroom with the kind of iron hand and fierce determination that has made Judge Judy a household name. I wonder how many splintered gavels he will go through before the play closes.
The courtroom scenes are riveting with Mr. Ewell’s rants, the wide-eyed hysterics of Mayella, and the trembling testimony of terrified Tom. Mr. Williams is absolutely wonderful pleading the case to the jury with lengthy monologues that must have been an actor’s challenge to remember. Reid Self slyly plays the smug prosecuting attorney, Horace Gilmer.
As for production problems I would only note that there were moments when some dialogue could not be clearly heard in the back of the theatre. But there is a wonderful cast of supporting players too large to document here, and it must be said that another highlight of the production is the lovely gospel music sprinkled throughout by a choir sextet including Cloresa Porter, DuWayne Holiday, Gloria Deveraux, Ocie Roy, Shann Powers, and the aforementioned Wanda Deveraux. The play’s conclusion is stormy in more ways than one. I will offer no clues to the outcome of the dramatic court case. But let me simply offer this: It is said, “A mockingbird does no harm. It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” It might also be a sin to miss this fine production.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD continues through July 15th at the Owen Theatre in Conroe, Texas, with performances tonight and tomorrow night at 8pm and a Sunday matinee at 2 pm. For tickets & information call 936-539-4090 or visit the website at www.owentheatre.org .