Photo by Joan Marcus
Let me reassure readers up front: If you are hesitant about seeing The Guthrie’s To Kill a Mockingbird because you’re afraid the power and immediacy of live theater will sully your recollection of the book and destroy your lifelong love affair with Gregory Peck, breathe easy. Nothing about the Guthrie’s production will alter the nostalgic patina of your memories, and if you bring children who haven’t yet been imprinted by the movie, they will leave the theater as open to suggestion as they were in the parking lot.
That’s not to say that the drama taking place on the Guthrie’s thrust stage is bad—just an acknowledgement that it’s not good enough to matter, one way or the other.
The curious thing about the 1962 movie version of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has always been how closely it captured the mood and spirit of the book. Millions of people will tell you that the movie is “exactly the way I imagined the book,” as if Harper Lee wrote in black and white, and consulted Universal Studios before describing her superhero, Atticus Finch. (Just think how different things would be if they’d said no, Greg Peck can’t do it, but Wilford Brimley is available.) A super dad, honest lawyer, and defender of justice who fights bigotry with the sharp sword of reason, Peck’s Atticus Finch became an icon of American manhood, a role model that inspired a generation of liberal-arts majors to go to law school and do something marginally useful with their lives.
Given To Kill a Mockingbird’s iconic status, it’s unfair to compare the stage version to the movie, or Baylen Thomas’s portrayal of Atticus to Gregory Peck’s. It’s also impossible not to compare them. Because however open-minded you are about different interpretations of stories you already know, your imagination is going to layer your experiences of Mockingbird and unconsciously rank them.
What my subconscious ranking told me was that the play is an even flimsier vehicle for the book than the movie, and that everything that loomed large and powerful in my memory—Atticus’s tortured syntax and booming baritone, Boo Radley’s haunting presence, that foaming rabid dog—all seemed smaller and less dramatic onstage. Granted, this could be a function of age. But it’s also a function of long chunks of a play on a large stage being acted by children, and from seeing several thousand courtroom dramas on television, most of which are better written and more compelling than the “did he or didn’t he?” rape trial of Tom Robinson.
Having mentioned the children, let me also say that it’s not their fault. They are all fine child actors, and do a great job—for children. It also needs to be said that Mary Bair, the young actress who plays Scout, is the shining gem of this production. She’s charming and sassy, full of spunk and moxie, and not once did she flinch at the responsibility of carrying this play on her tiny shoulders. Without Ms. Bair, the play would be much harder to watch. So bravo, young lady—and keep up the good work.
As for the play itself, it was originally written for middle-school and high-school theater departments, and it feels like it. The lessons about honesty and justice and doing the right thing are all shamelessly didactic, and in order for kids to understand what’s going on during the trial, the court scenes are peppered with asides from Scout, who has a humorously thorough understanding of courtroom procedure. The “moral” of the story—that you can be good and right and honest and still lose—is also presented in a Hallmark-ian, “class, let’s discuss this” way that makes it feel more like a corporate video on sexual harassment.
Honestly, if it weren’t To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that comes as close to American mythology as there is, this would be mediocre play at best—one they’d workshop at the Playwright’s Center for at least another six months. There’s a by-the-numbers feel to the whole affair as the familiar scenes are ticked off one by one. Mary Bair’s Scout keeps the sparks flying, but on opening night the cast was still looking for its groove, trying to tap into the vein of iconic Americana that has made this such an enduring and beloved story for generations. They may yet find it, but Baylen Thomas’s portrayal of Atticus Finch makes him seem more like the dad on Leave It to Beaver—quiet, self-assured, hard to fluster—and though many of the townfolk of Maycomb, Alabama, are colorful hicks, it’s hard not to see them as Depression-era stereotypes. A few performances rise above the fray—among them Candace Birk’s Mrs. Dubose, Peter Thomson’s Judge Taylor, and Bob Davis as the court prosecutor—but most of the characters do not have enough good lines to distinguish themselves.
There was a time when some people did not like to see movie versions of their favorite books for fear that the movie would displace the world they have imagined. But nowadays, people tend to think of books and movies as complementary forms of media. And, since Disney began turning all of its favorite movies into fabulous stage spectacles, kids these days don’t even have to do any imagining themselves—they can just go to the show, where all the heavy mental lifting has been done for them.
In the end, the best thing about the Guthrie’s To Kill a Mockingbird may be that it still leaves room for a child to discover the magical world in Harper Lee’s novel. If even a few children leave the theater wondering what all the fuss is about, and dare to open the pages of Harper Lee’s book to find out, it could still be considered a triumph.