By Annette Hinkle
How far will any of us go to stand up for what is right? When the question is a theoretical one, it’s easy to say, “to great extremes.” But until the test is presented and one of us is forced to stand against friends and neighbors to defend what we believe in, is it possible to really say?
It’s a question offered in stark relief in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s seminal (and Pulitzer Prize winning) novel which was released in 1960, just as the civil rights movement in this country was coalescing. The book deals frankly with issues of black and white, right and wrong, and Bay Street Theatre’s current staged version of the novel (by Christopher Sergel) provides audiences with a rare treat to see a true classic in action.
Set in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in the mid-1930s, the play tells the story of lawyer Atticus Finch (Ken Forman), who takes on the case of Tom Robinson (McKinley Belcher III), a black man accused of raping a white woman in the poorest part of town. Atticus is also a single father and is raising his two children, Scout (Lily Spellman) and Jem (Myles Stokowski) with help from his housekeeper Calpurnia (Shonnese C.L. Coleman) and Miss Maudie (Susan Galardi) a sympathetic neighbor.
Atticus’ decision to defend a black man accused of a crime against a white woman in the Jim Crow South doesn’t come without consequence. Repercussions soon begin materializing against the Finch family at all levels. Scout resorts to using her fists against the ignorant taunts of less enlightened classmates, but then must turn to Atticus for an explanation of why her father is suddenly so vilified by those in the community whom she thought of as friends.
Explaining the reasoning behind hatred and racism to his children while teaching tolerance in return is perhaps Atticus’ greatest gift to the world (and one that has inspired generations of readers – and no doubt, a few attorneys). Director Murphy Davis has assembled an excellent cast that is more than up to the task of bringing the emotion of the novel to the stage and Gary Hygom’s well-worn set truly brings Depression-era Maycomb to life. Rounding out the cast is Keith Francis (Judge Taylor, Walter Cunningham and Boo Radley), Hudson Galardi-Troy (Dill Harris), Seth Hendricks (Heck Tate), Scott Thomas Hinson (Mr. Gilmer), Joanna Howard (Mayella), and Joe Pallister (Bob Ewell).
The actors, even the youngest among them, do a superb job with the material across the board — though at times, some of the children’s lines can be a bit difficult to make out from across the theater. It’s not an easy show, given the fact the children have substantial roles and their characters are all wise beyond their years. But Spellman (a Hampton Bays middle schooler) handles Scout like a pro, while Stokowksi (a Pierson student) and young Hudson Galardi-Troy (of Sag Harbor Elementary School) who plays Dill, Jem and Scout’s overly-precocious friend visiting “from away,” both hold their own among the adults.
This production is part of Bay Street’s “Literature Live” series, and because it is designed for middle and high school students who are reading the book, it runs 90 minutes without interruption. Though Davis has done a yeoman’s job at taking the complexities of the novel and compressing it into the required hour and a half format, true fans can’t help but wish that the pacing could be slower, particularly in relation to the children’s fascination with Boo Radley, the reclusive hermit who lives up the street.
Missing are some of the novel’s most endearing and distinctly kid-inspired moments — like the children’s increasingly daring attempts to entice Boo to “come out,” or the mysterious gifts that are left for them in the hollow of an old tree.
But even without these scenes, the play still hits the emotional high notes adeptly. While “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a story told through the eyes of a child, it is not a children’s tale. Conversely, though it is designed for students, the production still speaks volumes to more mature theater goers and is not “dumbed down” for the target audience.
The honest and straightforward treatment of both rape and racism (including liberal use of a racial epithet) should be carefully considered by parents contemplating bringing their own children to see the production (Bay Street recommends it for ages 13 and up). But those who feel their children can handle the material will be doing them a great service by allowing them to see this live version. The book’s important and enduring messages are reinforced strongly on stage and the production can only deepen the impact and understanding for young viewers down the road.
With this play, Bay Street offers a moving portrait of a timeless American classic. Over the course of the evening, we are reminded of the beauty of Lee’s language and frequently brought to tears by Scout’s optimistic innocence. When she steps up to a mob that is threatening Atticus outside Tom Robinson’s prison cell and calls out “Hey” to the father of a classmate just as the group is on the verge of violence, there likely isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Yes, we’d all like to believe that when it comes right down to it, Atticus Finch is alive and well in us all. But in the end, Harper Lee (and the cast at Bay Street) shows us that it is through the eyes of the children that truth is ultimately revealed and ideally, reflected back.
Performances of “To Kill A Mockingbird” are offered at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 18 and Friday and Saturday, November 25 and 26. School day performances of the play are also open to the public, if space is available. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students. Call 725-9500 to reserve.
Top: Atticus Finch (Ken Forman) on the porch with Scout (Lily Spellman), Dill (Hudson Galardi-Troy), Calpurnia (Shonnese C.L. Coleman) and Jem (Myles Stokowski).
Jerry Lamonica photo.