An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

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IndyFringe: ‘Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror’

By John Lyle Belden

These things happened.

We must never forget that. These things happened.

Jubilee, Mississippi, does not exist, and “Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror,” the short drama by Garret Mathews that had a run at the recent IndyFringe festival, is fiction, but racial strife and murderous bigotry in Mississippi in the 1960s were real. These things happened.

Kates (portrayed by Donovan Whitney) represents the various college students – black, like him, or even white – who volunteered as civil rights workers, helping disenfranchised Southern blacks to register and vote. People who put up with derision, verbal and even physical attacks, from white residents who declared them “outside agitators” and an enemy to society. People who landed in a Southern jail cell, like Kates, speaking on a college level with a cellmate who barely finished high school, only adding to the layers of difference between them, yet trying to hard to bridge.

These things happened.

Buell (Clay Mabbitt) represents the Southerners who don’t feel things are quite right, but it’s the world they were born into. Perhaps they play along because it keeps you out of trouble. Perhaps they find other ways to act out at the world, like getting drunk and attacking a traffic light, landing in jail next to this nig… this outsider.

These things happened.

Tadpole (Sam Fields) seems like an unreal stereotype, but we all know someone like him, and in the rural South 50 years ago, there weren’t public services to care for people with mental challenges, but local folks would adopt them and take care of them. But what if your caretaker is in jail?

These things happened.

Spottswood (Kevin C. Robertson) represents the face under the KKK hood, the men invested in the racist status quo, who didn’t even see non-whites as human. Men who not only defied the outsiders, but reveled in the fact that they could kill them, and likely never face justice.

These things happened.

The jail Guard (Dustin Miller) represented the common go-along/get-along citizen. They just don’t want trouble, and really don’t feel comfortable with strangers coming in and upsetting things.

These things happened.

These actors, under the direction of Susan Nieten, do an excellent job of breathing life into these archetypes, making them human – all human – and standing before us, bringing the arguments and ideas of the time to life, presenting “all sides” better than the bluster of a present-day politician reveals. They bring to life Mathews’ imagined scenes, based on numerous interviews of people who were there, in real Southern towns.

These things happened.

And when you see this show, wherever it next gets staged – and you should – even with a different cast and director, and you see what its events lead to, remember:

These things happened.

For information on the inspiration for “Jubilee” visit Mathews’ website, www.pluggerpublsihing.com.