Respect can be too influential.
Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is one of the established classics of 20th century literature. It is included in many, and probably most, school curricula. Its theme and lessons resonate: bigotry trumping justice, fixed racial and social divides making certain attitudes and outcomes predictable.
In directing Christopher Sergel’s dramatic adaptation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Jesse Cline is uncharacteristically too reverential about the material. Though Megan Rucidlo, as alleged rape victim Mayella Ewell, delivers a breakthrough performance and shows new dimension to her acting, and Bob Stineman fulfills his aspiration that his turn as Atticus Finch will raise his stock as a lead actor on local stages, Cline’s production is stilted, deliberate, slow, and exaggerated in a way that evaporates any power in Lee or Sergel’s text and renders TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD a pedantic, transparent bore.
Every syllable characters utter seems slow and pointed, as if each phoneme contained a pearl of wisdom that could not be lost or unheard. Hillary Parker, as the Finch’s neighbor, Miss Maudie, and Virginia Barrie, as the snoopier, more opinionated Miss Stephanie, pick up the pace a tad, but even their conversation seems less natural than preserved for posterity. Everyone in the Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935 behaves as if he or she is a spokesperson presented a point of view to an audience, a figure in a play, rather than a warm-blooded human being. Only Tamara Woods, as the Finches’ housekeeper and governess, Calpurnia, seems on move and speak live a living human. The others, adult or child (except for Woodward), enunciate and emphasize phrases as if a marksman was in the balcony waiting to pick them off if they dared to sound like someone actually talking.
The pace and the tone of the production allowed you to see the seams in Lee’s story. It did not flow like a dynamic, seminal, time-honored tale but plodded along like a dragged-out lecture.
Matthew Miller’s set did not help Cline much. Instead of a handsome, if aging, Southern town, Miller supplied rough wooden boards, with some gaps, as if he was building a solid wall, making Maycomb look like a collection of shacks. Cline, as usual, used slides to depict the Finch, Dubose, and Radley houses, as well as a courthouse, jail, and municipal building, but the images, in black-and-white, to keep, I guess, with 1935, do not convey real places that had any sense of permanence or the comforts of a residence. The wooden slats Miller nailed up on both sides of the stage make the Finch and Dubose homes seem coarse and unhospitable.
Which is too often the sad case of Cline’s production. Except for scenes between Stineman and Dake, or involving Rucidlo in the courtroom, this TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD registers as inert and devoid of importance. Just the opposite effort Cline usually achieves.
Rucidlo, by pure emotional power and a full depiction of a character that goes beyond stereotype and elicits empathy for a woman committing a villainous act, saves the day and provides the real goods MOCKINGBIRD is made off in act two. Stineman and Dake take off the gloves and forget the mechanical nature of Cline’s production in their courtroom confrontations. Surprisingly and delightfully, John Baxter’s tenderness, bravery, and childlike awkwardness as the feared and maligned Boo Radley provide the truest, most authentic, most unmitigated moving section of Cline’s staging. Travis Keith Battle gives quiet dignity and ingenuous sincerity to Tom Robinson, the young black farmworker who is on trial for raping Rucidlo’s Mayella.
Katie Yamaguchi did an excellent job in designing or choosing costumes. The white and light gray suits in which she dressed Stineman and Dake were especially good. Troy Martin O’Shea’s lighting artistically enhanced some scenes and gave a sense, at one critical juncture, of time passing. Old-time country music, the kind you might hear at the Grand Ole Opry in the ’30s, set an interesting tone before Cline’s production commenced. It made me think and gave me hope for texture that, unfortunately, did not emerge.
Alas, this TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is strongest in its final moments. I keep thinking Cline may have been working too hard to give each story in the play its due. A son of the South, he may have seen firsthand the prejudice Lee so clearly depicts, Certainly, the threads about Tom Robinson and Boo Radley speak to that. As does one stunning projection, the only one that made me gasp, of a Confederate flag, in full color, that appears at a pivotal moment.
[Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa.] January 27-February 21, 2016; mediatheatre.org.