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To Kill a Mocking Bird

In Play Reviews on February 24, 2014 at 7:51 pm

A Brief Review and Critical Analysis

Such a classic American tale as To Kill a Mocking Bird is undoubtedly going to be received with a variety of expectations. I know I had high expectations when I first saw this production staged in 2009 by the Judson Theatre Company from New York in Appleton, WI. That production was largely unsatisfying – primarily because such a powerfully character driven story requires a certain level of intimacy that the Fox Cities Center for the Performing Arts just could not provide. Though their adult cast were all from the Actor’s Equity Association, and their child actors were incredibly dynamic considering the challenges of such a large venue, and the nature of a traveling show, I never felt as though I truly cared for the characters.

On one hand, it is not fair to compare and contrast these two productions, as they were different scripts done by different organizations for different purposes – but on the other hand, I was so struck by how stark the contrast indeed was that I would be remiss not to mention it. Having a mixed experience with Performance Hall (BJU) productions, I did not know what to expect when I entered the theatre. My very critical eye immediately thought the set to be awkward and isolating. A small, picket fence sliced a whole section of the main playing area into a strange shape. I wondered if it may serve to alienate (in a bad way) those observing action on the other side of it. Similarly, a tire-swing hanging from the light grid upstage right hung loosely – seemingly for little purpose. Other than that, the attempts at non-realistic houses seemed somewhat forced and jarring. (more on this later)

to kill a mockingbird

However, as is commonly thought, a play is only as good as its written material. Whether or not you subscribe to that notion, it must be observed that To Kill a Mockingbird is indeed a great place to start as far as dramatic literature is concerned. The play opens with the aged version of the character Scout narrating the given circumstances of the story. I was hesitant at first, as exposited narration has been met with varied success in the past, in my small experience. However, the actress narrating proved strong, enjoyable, and helped grease the overall dramatic action so that it ran nice and smooth.

During this opening bit we first saw the young Scout. The young actress took to the tire swing with such comfortable confidence that even without a word being spoken, we all believed her. It was in this moment when my mind was completely changed regarding the nature of the set. Perhaps it was due to my sitting so near the swing, but I could enjoy every small and innocent moment portrayed by all three child actors. They shared an obvious camaraderie and ease that many adult actors spend a life time searching for. And Stanislavski would likely have approved, because the swing seemed to serve as Scout’s first circle of attention, a physical and tangible connection to the world of the play – not that I believe the child was aware of this, but it certainly seemed to be the case. Similarly, in this vein, the set was incredibly versatile – giving you just enough to let your imagination artfully fill in the blanks. And the lighting guided your focus seamlessly to do so.

I never really noticed a “weakest link” as far as the acting was concerned, though there was an obviously diverse range of experience – but it never bothered me. Furthermore, the performance of Atticus by Ellis Schoolfield was exemplary. He brought the likeable “John Doe” qualities that make up who Atticus is to a very tangible light. His meek eccentricities made for an enriching experience, and helped to build to such a hard climax, as his virtuous zeal for equality and justice was ever reflected in the children’s innocence, and contrasted by the horrid state of the Caucasian majority.

On this note, it must be stated that the overall tone of the show was incredibly positive – even in the face of tragic defeat, and loss. There was a clear redemption that could be seen in the deep impact Atticus’ actions and choices had on Scout. Despite my initial criticisms of the set and layout, it was quickly made apparent to me that all the choices were intentional, and served the play very well. If I had one strong criticism that I firmly believe should have been changed, it was the audio levels of the music. Beautiful as it was, it did occasionally overpower the actor’s from where I was sitting.

to kill a mockingbird set

In conclusion, I congratulate Paul Jutras and Ellis Schoolfield, and the cast and crew of To Kill a Mockingbird on a job well done, and a powerful show as a result. Paul demonstrated his skill bringing all the collaborative aspects into a tight, cohesive whole. Working with children only complicates the directing process, and he was incredibly successful. Staging a beloved classic can be equally challenging in the face of expectations, and he was incredibly successful. Walking the fine line between didacticism, and powerfully lived out truth can indeed be challenging as well, and he was incredibly successful. It’s a show I should have liked to see again.

vp130821566358a-jpg By Johnathan Schofield