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Productions of beloved stories, movies and novels can easily fall into a trap; in an effort to compare or even compete with the stellar source material, the show loses its own voice and currency. The Rep's stage version of Harper Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" doesn't get caught in that cage. In fact, "Mockingbird" is right on cue, and right on pitch.
Though written in 1960, the familiar story still feels fresh and the themes of growing up and racial injustice continue to resonate. If the similarly racially-charged 2011 film "The Help," which racked up over $169 million at the box office and recently garnered four Oscar nominations, is any indication, audiences are interested. And if The Rep's show, directed by resident artistic director Robert Hupp, doesn't reinvent the wheel, it's because the wheel doesn't need it.
In case you didn't complete your school reading assignment, here's a refresher: Lee's novel is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Scout (played by Conway seventh-grader Abby Shourd). Set in 1935 in a fictitious Alabama town, Scout's life is complicated one summer when her lawyer father, Atticus Finch (John Feltch), takes on a case to defend a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman.
The play opens with Jean Louise (played by Kathy McCafferty), who is a grown-up Scout and extension of author Harper Lee, frantically gathering scattered pages from the ground. According to the program notes, Lee threw the manuscript that would become "To Kill a Mockingbird" out of her apartment window in a fit of writer's block. Here, Jean Louise picks up a random page and reads a description of the sweltering, sleepy town. "Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum ..." The script, written by Christopher Sergel, is wise to adapt Lee's lyrical prose, especially as read by Jean Louise, who returns at key moments to narrate. The words add life to Mike Nichols' minimalist set, a seamless wooden structure that stretches across the stage, connecting the Finches' home, the old tree and the Radleys' front porch.
Jean Louise provides adult self-reflection, but it is innocent Scout who leads us through the story. Scout, her older brother Jem (Damon McKinnis) and a quirky new friend Dill (Spencer Davis) are constantly on the move, introducing the audience to the characters of the small town — the poor farmer Walter Cunningham, Calpurnia the housekeeper, cranky old Mrs. Dubose, the kind neighbor Maudie Atkinson, gossipy Miss Stephanie. The adults are all fine, but it is the kids who carry the story, and the local actors who play them make a charming trio. As the tomboyish, overall-wearing Scout, Shourd has an open face, inquisitive and blunt, much like the nature of the character she plays. Davis as Dill is a hoot, providing comic relief as the picture of childhood geekery and imagination. He melodramatically delivers made-up stories about joining the circus and concocts ludicrous plans to lure Boo Radley out of his house with a trail of lemon drops, passing notes through the window with a fishing pole, etc.
The drama is slow to build, but Scout and Jem's summertime antics eventually start to mingle with their father's controversial case, and naive ideas fade as they learn hard lessons about an unfair world. After Finch is assigned Tom Robinson's case, a violent racist confronts Finch at the family's home. The first truly tense moment extends beyond the stage, when the country character spews a historically-appropriate racial epithet — a shocking moment for the audience, even during a theatrical event. In fact, even the decent white folks' use of "negro" slightly stings, but not as much as the final verdict from the jury.
The courtroom commotion takes up much of the second act, and Feltch's passionate Finch deftly alternates between doting father and domineering lawyer. Feltch gamely takes on the often-quoted closing statement made iconic by Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his role in the 1962 film, and makes a strong, emphatic delivery. Addressing the audience as though we are the jury, he makes us complicit in deciding the doomed future of Tom Robinson.
Strangely enough, it is Boo Radley that people often remember about the story, though Radley exists largely in tall tales and myths told by the children. When he finally comes out of hiding in the final scene, it's to save the siblings in a dark, dramatic stabbing scene. His absent character provides the children with a sense of wonder and fear of the unknown; his appearance proves that in life it is the well-known enemy that is often the most dangerous.