If you are of a certain age, odds are good that you've read Harper Lee's classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," or at least have seen the 1962 film, starring Gregory Peck. "To Kill a Mockingbird," now more than 50 years old, is as revered as ever, and the Rep production will introduce it to another generation.
Like many celebrated and long-lived cultural artifacts, the story and its lessons are not instinctual. "Mockingbird" has opened the eyes of young people to elements of humanity that are both heartwarming and shocking. There aren't too many other books and movies acceptable for children that include racially-driven rape allegations in their plot arcs.
Christopher Sergel adapted "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the stage in 1990, and The Rep's production, helmed by producing artistic director Bob Hupp, opens Friday. The story does not deviate from its previous incarnations except that it includes as a character Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, who narrates the play as a memory. She reflects on the events of her formative years in Depression-era Alabama — her fears of Boo Radley, her father's representation in court of a black man accused of raping a white woman and the small town's reaction to it.
"The play is about good and evil, or perceived good and evil," Hupp says, "and the shades between the two. This is reflected in the set design, since Jean Louise is telling the story filtered through 30 years: The perceived good is the Finch house, and the perceived evil is the Radley house." Scout learns the difference between the two, but not without tragedy.
A production like "To Kill a Mockingbird" requires several young actors in powerful and significant roles. "We are very fortunate to have exceptionally talented young artists," Hupp said. "We wouldn't have tackled a play like this unless we felt we had the right actors to create the central characters of Scout, Jem and Dill." Each of these roles and their understudies are filled by actors from The Rep's Young Artists Program. In the book and film the characters are 9 years old, but the actors in this production are a few years older.
"What makes the story magical is that you're dealing with such complex issues, but you're watching it through the eyes of a child," Kathy McCafferty, who plays Jean Louise, said. "The young actors are all very professional, and yet they are still able to capture the childlike innocence of the time and the place."
The crowd of youngsters who haven't yet been introduced to "Mockingbird" don't yet know the name Atticus Finch and may not have had their eyes opened to the reality of jarring racial violence. The best audience members, in a sense, are the Scouts and Jems and Dills who come see the play with their schools, as uninitiated as the children on the stage are when the curtain rises.
John Feltch, who plays Atticus in The Rep's production, played the same character in a production in Texas. "It was new and fresh to them," he said. "The kids would get breathless at what was done to Tom Robinson. It was a new horror to them, and they couldn't conceive of a time and place where that might have happened."
It is that horror, that dramatic loss of innocence, which keeps the story alive in our consciousness. " 'Mockingbird' is so enduring because it's about real people, living people," Hupp said, "and yet the big ideas in the play, which are so epic in what they encompass, remain timeless and jump over generations."