Sunday, April 11, 2010

"To Kill a Mockingbird": ☼ ☼

Everybody knows the film version of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," starring Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch (and introducing a young Robert Duval as Boo Radley). The book, dealing with a small Alabama town's racial divide in the year 1935, was published in 1960 and made into a film in 1962. Harper Lee then went into seclusion and wrote little afterwards, except to collaborate some years later with Truman Capote, another child of small town Alabama, on his novel "In Cold Blood."

The book and film were adapted for the stage in 1970 by Christopher Sergel. This version is what we are seeing in Theatreworks' new production, running through May 5 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.

It's not the book and it's not the movie, not by a long shot. There are two stage sets, the principal one being a small village -- a collection of four houses presumably next door to one another in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. From one of these houses, Miss Maudie, played by Nancy Carlin, emerges periodically to narrate. If she's not talking a spiritual is being sung by Calpurnia (Cathleen Riddley), the maid in the Finch house two doors down. It is hard to overstate how annoying this narration and cliche'd singing are. If there were ever a chance for the characters to build their scenes, they are destroyed by these stage devices, wooden direction and possibly by the dated script itself.

Anthony Newfield is a credible Atticus Finch and looks the part in his white suit and graying hair. Rod Gnapp is his delightfully smarmy self as Robert E. Lee Ewell, the baddie of baddies.

Philipe D. Preston is properly cautious as the doomed Tom Robinson, and the children -- Sierra Stephens as Scout, Eric Colvin as Jem Finch and Gabriel Hoffman as Dill (Dill is supposedly based on a youthful Truman Capote) -- are adequate. Of the three, only Hoffman projects enough volume to be heard very clearly.

The major problem is that for the play to succeed you have to be captivated by Atticus Finch. Anthony Newfield has no choice: he has to be Gregory Peck. There is a fine line between noble, reticent hero and prudish ideologue. Newfield is very good but for any number of reasons, most having to do with the limits of this script, he cannot make us ignore all the holes.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "To Kill a Mockingbird" Two Stars. There were serious distractions on Opening Night, including a medical emergency, and the actors responded fabulously, barely skipping a beat. Perhaps the show will hit its stride later in the run.

"To Kill a Mockingbird"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through May 9

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