An actor lightly strummed a banjo as audience members entered the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton. The audience couldn’t miss the elaborate set for Second and Vine Players production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Ironically, this opening night there are also classic cars displayed in downtown Hammonton that made parking hard to find, but the enthusiastic audience was there nonetheless, almost filling the theatre to see another “classic”– a challenging literary drama. For the theatre group on opening night, things may not have gone as well as they had hoped.
While the Second and Vine Players made a fine community theatre effort to bring Lee’s wonderful words to life, the final product lacked the power you would expect with a more experienced or professional company. Granted, as a community theatre, this company’s efforts are part-time and the work of volunteers. Unfortunately, the production faced problems from the very impressive set that framed the action. Instead of creating an atmosphere to draw us into the play we were drawn into the theatre but struck by how hard it was for actors to move and act on stage. With a realistic set must come reality.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. While we expect most plays to be meaningful, a work such as Lee’s classic, has been finely tuned as a play–the work already a masterpiece in its own right. We’ve all seen the Academy Award-winning film at some time; Horton Foote wrote the screenplay for that. The stage play is good, too, containing the best of both worlds along with some of the best expressions of language, and the most poignant messages of the novel.
Rest assured I have no preconceived notions, expectations or comparisons in mind for this production other than I do for any theatre work. I expect the company to do justice to the work as intended, adding emphasis to the words on paper with action, and make it more powerful on stage. That is what good theatre does.
Overall most of the acting was pretty decent. Everyone needs to work on “reacting” to what is happening on stage as it happens. This was especially evident in the courtroom scenes. Ed Stahl as “Mr. Gilmer,” the prosecutor, showed some real spunk in the later courtroom scenes. Jim Collins’ “Bob Ewell” was consistently nasty, but seemed a little young to be Mayella’s father. Jaaron Drew as “Tom Robinson” did a great job on the stand, but I wondered why, when he was sitting there listening to the lies, he didn’t react. I’m thinking he may have thought his character’s situation was hopeless (Tom does tell us this), but the scene didn’t work for me. I would have expected some reaction–however small–especially considering what comes later. In spite of his statement in court, this is a serious life-changing event that obviously affects him deeply, although he won’t admit it. It is essentially the worst thing to happen to man, dog or beast–to be accused and punished for something they didn’t do.
There is much action in Lee’s words that was lost as actors spent time struggling to maintain a southern accent without understanding the lines. “Atticus,” although nicely played by Joe Cooper, didn’t seem to have a regional accent–at least not consistently. I kept hearing New Jersey. I liked his calm manner for the most part, but felt he needed to be more natural. The contrast with the other characters was too obvious and constant. He needs to find more points to let his feelings come through–especially with the “love” he shows his children. At times, he seemed almost uncomfortable with them.
Tara Romanelli as the “narrator” and “Maude” had a beautiful Southern voice, but she may have refined and focused too much on accent instead of the acting–not that the acting itself was bad, but it was hard to give her character any definition. While you sit mesmerized by the unusual sound, it’s easy to forget you need to interpret those words as well. The spotlight on her was a good example of focusing the scenes and the words; however, the narrator is supposed to be a grown-up Scout. That has significance in the play since the story is told from her perspective as a child who has learned from all that transpires. If what happened to the grown-up Scout also happens to “Maude” who she also plays, it is disconcerting, especially if you know the original.
The size of the show made action of any of the characters awkward because there is simply no way to build house façades on stage and have them look like anything other than row houses, but even on a small stage there are ways to create powerful moments and action that works without a set. I sat there puzzled at first, wondering how anyone could find the drama and poetry here. Most of the action was center stage when some clearly needed to be off to one side; it would have been awkward with so much set. And, when it seemed the action should be center stage, i.e., the courtroom scenes, it was played off to the side, losing the most powerful part of the audience focus.
For a show like this on a small stage, it does no good to have much of a set at all. Some theatre groups have a hard time thinking about using a minimal set, but it does have its advantages. Here, the children could have been playing anywhere in our imagination. Here, we could have seen the dog killed from a different angle. Here, we could set up a courtroom and see the acting. With focused lighting, black curtains and minimal set pieces, a more consistent effect could have been maintained. Piling the courtroom on top of the “home” just didn’t work.
There were some lighting problems, but those are fixable; this was, after all, opening night. In spite of all that appears negative, the Second and Vine Players did their best with a difficult play to produce. Sometimes what seems to be the path to take in the beginning, is not the right one when you have finished the long trek. You know what they say about hindsight. Still, it is a show worth seeing.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Adapted by Christopher Sergel
From the Novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Carolyn Hand
The Second and Vine Players at The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street
Hammonton, NJ 08037