Racism Sizzles in a Small, Sleepy Alabama Town in the 1930s: To Kill a Mockingbird Moves From Screen to Stage, Impressively

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, New Jersey

Two weeks ago, I re-read Harper Lee’s haunting 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  One week ago, I once again saw the film version of the book, with Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning performance as intrepid lawyer Atticus Finch.  On Saturday, I saw the play version of the story, adapted to the stage by Christopher Sergel, at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. I went to see it with great apprehension.  How do you match up a stage version against one of the great films in U.S. history?  How does anyone compare to Gregory Peck as Atticus in the role of a lifetime?  How, eighty years later, do you call up the seething racism of the South in the 1930s?

The stage version in Madison is, in parts, very different from the film version.  In many ways, though, it remains the same.  A play is anchored on a stage and cannot spread out through the countryside, as every film does.  The performers get one chance to excel, unlike the film, in which everybody has as many takes as they need.

The results at Drew are pretty impressive, though.  To Kill a Mockingbird on stage retains the powerful drive of the book and film and, at the same time, captures Atticus Finch as a single dad and a skilled lawyer.  It also preserves the wonder of childhood that made the film such a success.  Young Jem, Dill and Scout live on in theater as they did in film.

The stage version (half a dozen theaters around the country are staging the play this year, the 50th anniversary of the book) uses a narrator with a luscious magnolia drawl, the child Scout as a woman in her thirties (played nicely by Nisi Sturgis), to tell the story.  She compresses the plot in many places and explains it in others.  She fades from view at times and bounces back when needed.

There are two stories in the play, both centered on Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in his forties. He’s a smart man, a state legislator, who lost his wife four years ago.  He struggles, with the help of a maid, Calpurnia, to bring up his two children in Maycomb, a sleepy Alabama town, trying to teach them right from wrong and how to lead moral lives.  At the same time, the play tells the story of Atticus the lawyer, representing a black man accused of raping a white woman in the South.  He says an acquittal is tough because of racism but does his best, anyone’s best, to get a jury to find defendant Tom Robinson not guilty.

The root of the story is the hopeless racism of Maycomb and the country in 1935.  Atticus scowls at one point that all-white juries in Alabama have found black defendants guilty for generations and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The case against Tom Robinson seems solid. His alleged victim, Mayella Ewell, says she was raped by him after she invited him into her yard to chop up a dresser for firewood.  There are no witnesses.  It is a white woman’s word against a black laborer’s.

Director Joseph Discher has done a fine job of meshing the two stories, Atticus the dad and the lawyer, and using his children and their friends to underscore his many skills in both lives.

To Kill a Mockingbird moves very slowly, agonizingly slowly, at first (to be fair, it’s a fault the book has, too).  It picks up speed just before the trial starts. The trial has always been the highlight of the story, regardless of the medium, and it is extremely well-presented in the play.  The director lets the audience be the jury and the attorneys play to the crowd, pulling the audience into the play.  The second act is much better than the first and all of the actors reach their emotional peaks in it.

The play isn’t perfect. It doesn’t showcase the charm of Southern life and small-town camaraderie as effectively as the book and film do; the Radley family and son Arthur are not discussed as much as they should be and we get no sense of the lives of the kids in school and in the tiny town (the movie did a fine job of that).

And, at first, Brent Harris is an uninspiring Atticus.  He rambles through the entire first act and does not exhibit any of the ‘great man’ attributes from the novel and film. He gets much better in the second act, though.  Harris builds his character slowly and, at the end, is a powerful lawyer, upstanding citizen and loving dad. But it takes Harris too long to capture Atticus’ virtues.  He needs to speed it up.

The other actors in the show are good. The lead actors are Emmanuelle Nadeau (Scout), Maureen Silliman (Maudie), Marjorie Johnson (Calpurnia), James Michael Reilly (Heck Tate), Frankie Seratch (Jem), Conan McCarty (Bob Ewell), and Ray Fisher (Tom Robinson).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a fictional story, but it is based on much true history of the Deep South in the 1930s.  The scene in the play in which a lynch mob shows up was based on numerous similar scenes in Southern towns in that era.  The legal system in the play reflects many of the legal systems found in the South during the twentieth century (the North, too).  There were righteous lawyers like Atticus Finch (just as frustrated by an all-white justice as he was).  The great skill of author Lee and now adaptor Sergel was not to show the racism of the South, but to show that it had many evil unintended consequences and ruined the lives of not just the black victims, but their white predators.

Why is To Kill a Mockingbird such as powerful story, though, a long fifty years after the books publication?  It isn’t just the spotlight it shines on racism, or the intolerance of small Southern towns in the 1930s.  It is a great tale because of Atticus Finch.  Many law schools make the novel required reading so that their law students can study Atticus to understand how lawyers should behave.  Law schools, and the theaters, ask people to rise up past their prejudices, their neighbors and their past to forge a new America.

And the play remind us all that in America we cannot keep killing our mockingbirds, marvelous little creatures that, as the book says, do nothing but give us lovely music.  We have certainly killed too many of them already.

PRODUCTION: Producer: Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, Sets: Anita Tripathi Easterling, Costumes: Maggie Dick, Lighting: Matthew E. Adelson, Sound: Steven L. Beckel, Dialect coach: Alithea Phillips. The play was director by Joseph Discher.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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