TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD : A Path Through the Darkness

by Terry Stern

l to r: Jeff Quattrone and Tim Rinehart in a scene from Mainstage Center for the Arts' TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD playing in Blackwood, NJ through February 11.

Nelle Harper Lee published TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in 1960, pre-dating the main force of the Civil Rights Movement by three or four years. It became an immediate success and within a year was translated into ten languages, a task much more daunting at the time than it is now.

It has been cited as the most widely read book on American racial injustice in the world. The British Librarians Society named it a book more significant to read than The Bible. And Atticus Finch, given to us like a Mont Blanc of humanity by Tim Rinehart, quickly became the 20th Century’s most recognized icon of American racial self-awareness world-wide.

On Friday, February 3, Mr. Rinehart not only led a troupe through the racial darkness of the mid-20th Century American south, he led it through the literal darkness which descended upon the stage about 15 minutes into the performance.

Without so much as a groan or a pop indicating something amiss, the lights were gone. One moment they were giving us gorgeous fulfillment of the stage pictures behind partially finished, framed suggestions of houses and the next they were gone. We sat in total darkness for a tenth of a stunned moment before Mr. Rinehart went right on with the dialogue. The company followed in fine fashion.

He incorporated a reference to the sudden darkness into his lines, putting the audience at ease and suggesting that this was somehow done on purpose: perhaps a new staging concept for the show. An oddity, certainly, but we were game.

However, if the crisis is real, as it was at the time, there’s only so far pretending all’s well can go. When the cast began referring to actions they could not possibly have taken or seen if someone else took them, the audience stirred. Then the announcement infused the room from above like the voice of the universe come to put things right, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are having technical difficulties. . .”

The voice from above put it mildly. The main box feeding all power to the stage lights had burned out. Not only was there no possibility of repair for the show to continue, there was no possibility of saving the following night’s performance. There was even danger to the coming week’s presentations.

The miracle of that evening was that Atticus Finch, the attorney whose sense of fairness is so deep that he easily brushes aside the darkness of prejudice to see what is true, also had the presence of craft to lead us through the literal darkness back into the light of performance. Because neither the cast nor the audience would give up. Everyone wanted a play.

Michael Schaffner, Toni Richards and Emily Moore are featured in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Mainstage Center for the Arts.

In the end, the house lights were lit, the work lights on stage went on, and there were two follow-spots in the booth on outside circuits cranked wide and lighting the entire stage front. After a bit of technical finagling, the cast played on. So let me review this piece which continued by its own grace and in its own light.

The show opens with the angelic voice of Toni Roberts, playing the Finch family’s housekeeper Calpurnia, taking us out of our present world and gently sweeping us back to a time of greater sorrow with a soft, glorious rendition of the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”. You do not have to be Christian in any sense for this to prepare your heart for what is to follow.

Ms. Roberts does with Calpurnia what every member of this cast does with the role they play: makes it fully beautiful in type. There has been criticism of the work in general on the grounds that some characters are pure stereotype, which is almost true. All the characters are stereotypes.

The story is a parable: righteousness, justice and sobriety vs. prejudice, expedience and drunkenness. It is a wonderful parable. But all the characters are iconic.

Bob Ewell, given to us in drunken glory by Thomas Guzzi, is the drunkiest town drunk that ever drank. His daughter, Mayella, played with the teeth and claws of a cornered badger by Samantha Morrone, is the sluttiest town slut who ever. . .slutted.

Together, dripping racial slurs and malice towards all, they perpetrate a great injustice on kindly, open-hearted Tom Robinson, played with gentility and conviction by Steven Bryan. They put Tom in jeopardy of his life.

Tom is certainly a stereotype. Shuffling and with a lame left hand, he is trammeled innocence trying to get through a barbarous life intact. We see one moment of explosive passion in him, and Mr. Bryan delivers this most effectively. But in the end, his innocence cannot sustain in the face of the grand lie.

Atticus Finch is most certainly a stereotype. The father of six-year-old Scout and pre-teen Jem, he never gets angry except justly. This is a stereotype. A beautiful stereotype which Mr. Rinehart presents with such craft and strength as to elicit a cosmic sigh and the thought, ah, humanity! when the curtain rings down.

To say that Mr. Rinehart evokes Gregory Peck is a fine compliment in that he is not playing Gregory Peck. His choice of dialect and intention are fully his, and he owns them.

But his build and the depth of his voice combined with the standard gray fedora and those familiar sentiments he delivers with such centered depth and clarity could not help but evoke the iconic rendition of the iconic character in a most satisfying way. Thank you, Mr. Rinehart, for another fine performance.

The full impact of the story is brought home to us by the three, principal young characters whose awakening to the raw realities of racism embody the sad but hopeful lost-innocence message presented in the tale.

6-year-old Scout Finch, fully delivered by 11-year-old Emily Moore, while not the center of the play that she is to the novel, is the embodiment of the struggle of righteous innocence to comprehend the existence of cruelty.

Michael Schaffner, Aidan Meagher and Emily Moore star in the classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, playing through February 11 at Mainstage Center for the Arts.

Older brother Jem Finch, realized with heroic energy by 13-year-old Aidan Meagher, is childhood struggling with maturity. He takes his lumps learning the lessons of the world.

And marooned outcast Dill, given by 6th grader Michael Schaffer flashing like a pistol whip, is rescued innocence. He wisely gloms himself onto the island of sanity which is the Finch household in the sea of confusion which is the world of the play. They, in turn, welcome him.

The interactions amongst the three are excellent—energetic, committed and true, they are the hammer which drives the message home.

I don’t like paying attention to the age of the actor. It should not be a mitigating factor in judging the worth of a performance. And it is condescending to point it out arbitrarily. In this case, I say it to indicate that if these fine, young actors erred, it was by making excellent, young mistakes.

The three of you chose strong, committed intentions which were totally clear in your bodies and vocal tone but sometimes just beyond the level of your diction to deliver with complete clarity. Good for you! Reach for it and let the craft grow to fill the artistic image you see in your head. An excellent error. And it impinged fully only twice in the course of the play: at the top when we had to get used to the pace of your speech, and when you sneak upstairs to watch the trial.

And the only reason I mention it at all is that this lovely shortfall was the only significant one the whole evening after the lights went out. It was a marvelous actualization of the parable.

Throughout the performance, punctuating thematic climaxes and indicating passage of time, Ms. Roberts continues the hymn to soothe us from one point to the next and give our hearts a chance to sigh. It is a most wondrous touch. Ms. Roberts deserves double thanks for this soulful addition and the purity of the voice behind it.

The play flies by. This represents more than a brisk pace. Director Chris Melohn admits that he was not afraid make cuts to the original script. But he says when people question the artistic integrity of cutting a literary property, he simply asks, “Did you miss anything?”

No, Mr. Melohn, we did not. You’ve achieved every bit of the spirit and imbued it to the cast.

The Dennis Flyer Memorial Theatre has 600 seats. For our own benefits, we should fill them this weekend. A play of this quality done in this measure at this price deserves an audience and then some. But more so, we, the audience, need to bring our non-theatrical friends to plays like this.

The latest word is that the technical difficulties will be accounted for and the performances this weekend will go on as scheduled. See TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD this weekend with someone from the office you’ve been meaning to get to know. They’ll thank you for it, and you’ll both grow.

By Nelle Harper Lee
Adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel
Directed by Chris Melohn
Mainstage Center for the Arts
At The Dennis Flyer Memorial Theatre
College Drive
Blackwood, New Jersey

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