Millbrook Playhouse Review
Drama is thoughtful and a little eye-opening
Though much of the emphasis of the classic story “To Kill a Mockingbird” is on Scout and her relationship to her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, for me the story is also about community and the ways we struggle to come together.
The drama, adapted from the book by Harper Lee and brought thoughtfully to Millbrook’s main stage, establishes the importance of community from the beginning, as the townspeople, each occupying a distinct position in the circle, step onto the stage to introduce the action and move it forward.
The setting is 1935 Maycomb, Alabama, “a tired old town with nowhere to go,” and an air of somnolence permeates the stage set with its Spanish moss dripping from the rafters and its leafy shadows playing over the scene below. But if we get the impression that the town is asleep and forever locked in its ways, all that is about to change. A single leafless tree painted in silhouette in the background is there as a stark reminder of what has been shut out, and soon discordant voices, offstage and from several directions, begin intruding and demanding a response.
The problem of prejudice works in the play on two levels. One, having to do with Boo Radley, the town’s pariah, is resolved positively, conveying the lesson that difference is often overblown as a result of fear and that a community is strengthened by its inclusion. But this lesson – though it allows us to leave the play feeling hopeful – happens on what could be called a literary level with the story’s pieces fitting together touchingly but almost too neatly.
Nikki Yarnell, who plays Maudie Atkins, a townsperson and the narrator, and who lends a tone of reassuring strength to the play, tells us toward the end that in spite of everything, we are taking steps in the right direction. And Boo Radley’s story certainly supports that belief.
But the crux of the play is the racial prejudice that threatens to tear the town apart. I was curious when I first saw the set about how the courtroom scene would be managed, but in placing it outside under the trees, this production reinforces the point that what has been hidden is now being brought out into the open. And as the all-important courtroom scene goes on, we realize that, in a real sense, it’s the entire town that’s being judged.
Frank Franconeri, as Atticus, and Dana Orange, as Tom Robinson, both deliver strong performances as defender and defendant, revealing little by little the truths that the town’s entrenched racism refuses to acknowledge. Both actors are also skilled in conveying the deeply disturbing frustration and sorrow that arise from fighting for the truth in the face of overpowering hatred and ignorance.
The Ewells, performed by Thomas-Robert Irvin and Hannah Perry, are completely convincing as the most blatant representatives not only of this prejudice but of the ravages of poverty and social class. But the play follows this prejudice further as it travels outward in an expanding circle to include the people of the town in varying degrees as well as the “gentlemen of the jury,” whose seats we ourselves are occupying. The jury’s verdict raises questions we are still asking today, as issues of justice test and gradually expand the ideals on which our country was founded.
One of the most important questions the play leaves us with has to do with how the three children deal with the failure at its center. As they gradually come to understand, through the kindness and patience of Atticus, the importance of “right and wrong,” they are left at the end with a tear that has ripped through the center of their lives. Logan Dawes, who plays Scout’s big brother Jem, says in an interview that the events teach Jem something about bravery: that it comes to mean “doing the right thing, even though you know you’ll fail.” Dill, the red-headed upstart with a bow-tie, played with just the right amount of impudence by Ayden Mitcheltree, is too young to be able to articulate a life lesson, but you sense that his moxie will allow him to find his way.
It is through Scout’s eyes that we see much of the action, and it is Scout — played wonderfully by Maia Crowell — who stands just on the cusp of an imperfect world that she somehow must learn to navigate. For me, the quality that distinguishes Scout and allows her to move forward is her ability to stand in another’s shoes. This is conveyed touchingly in the last scene with Boo Radley, but it’s most apparent in her insistence that the three kids watch the trial from the “colored” balcony, thereby turning them into witnesses who are able to view these life-shifting events from the underside.
And that makes all the difference.
Be sure to see this play. As Maia Crowell tells us, “I think people should come see ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ because it’s a classic and deals with a bunch of history… it is a story with some eye-opening moments to make you really think about life today.” Amen.
For show dates and times, ticket information and reservations, call 570-748-8083 or visit millbrookplayhouse.net.
Karen Elias lives in Swissdale. She taught English for more than 30 years, most recently at Lock Haven University and Penn College.