It must be said. Atticus Finch’s closing argument to the jury in Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a tearjerker. Passionately and sensitively delivered by Ted Carleton, it brought the themes of the entire play to a powerful, emotional climax.
“It’s much more than a play,” Carleton said. “This really happened.”
The story takes place in 1935, when white was white and black was black. Atticus Finch stands for equality. He stands for courage. He lives it and he teaches it to his children.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is such an American classic that it doesn’t need much summarizing here. I remember reading the book the summer after my freshman year in high school, just a few years after it was published in 1960.
Racial prejudice was unknown in my sheltered northern backwater town — where discrimination and many other social inequities hovered just beneath the skin of ice on our skating pond — so I was dumbfounded, outraged and scared by the revelations I encountered in the book. It truly represented a loss of innocence for me, a recognition that evil existed in the world, not to mention a growing, healthy moral disgust over racism.
To enter the theater is to walk back in time to the Alabama town of Maycomb. A soft white light illuminates the front porch of a clapboard house with its iconic porch swing. A whole neighborhood is contained on this stage, including Boo Radley’s house and the mossy big old tree in whose knothole he hides little gifts for his young neighbor.
The curtain rises (that’s a romantic figure of speech, since there is no curtain) on the protagonist, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Jamie Peabody). She is nine years old, waiting out on the front porch for Atticus, her father, to come home. A grown up Jean Louise walks onto the stage from the back of the theater like an apparition. Dressed in black, she shows up in a spotlight throughout to narrate, to explain who is whom, and what is what. The yellow spot lights up her face, and her constantly changing reactions to the play’s action. It’s a brilliant device. I thought it might get in the way of other actors, but it doesn’t, not at all; it adds to the fabric of the piece. And Madeline Roy is brilliant in this role.
Between the child and the adult we see the innocence of childhood shining its light on the story. We also see the protectiveness of a small town and how we experience that as children. Scout’s world gets shaken up, but the true values of kindness and compassion carry her through.
It’s interesting how conflict between good and evil can spread like an insidious oil slick. Goodness stands the test. Atticus Finch never wavers toward the dark side.
My hat is off to the director, Shira Dubrovner, who loves a good challenge, and who brought cast and story together with the mastery we have come to expect from her. Hats off, too, to Tim Casey, whose brainchild set was a marvel of strategizing and staging that ensured the large cast of 19 never got in a tangle.
As a fan of the book by Harper Lee and of the movie starring Gregory Peck, I am now a fan of Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre’s production of the play.
But back to the cast … all of whom are standouts. The children—Scout, her brother Jem (Tanner Van Tassell), and their friend Dill (Devin Crume)—were terrific and the focus of much of the action. Jamie Peabody’s Scout looked every inch the part; she possessed the innocence and curiosity of a child.
I absolutely hated the character of Bob Ewell, played to sleazy perfection by Gary Walker. The white trash laborer who rapes his daughter and blames it on Tom Robinson, the black man who has the misfortune of having to pass the Ewell house on his way to work in the fields every day.
Micah Williams as Tom Robinson speaks volumes with his silence. And when he gets to the witness stand, he tells his story so simply and beautifully that I hoped the play would go against the story’s history and acquit him of the crime he did not commit.
Jarrett Jackson, brought in only two weeks ago to play Atticus’s sister, shines, as she does in any role she takes on.
Of course, Boo Radley is everyone’s favorite characters in “Mockingbird.” He plays a large part in the drama, although he’s not seen until the end. Jesse Steele does a huge job with his cameo-like appearance.
Mayella Ewell is the daughter of Bob and the girl who has falsely accused Tom Robinson of rape. I could see all the conflicted feelings rushing around in the girl’s head as Patricia Toledo slumped around on stage, coming alive on the stand with great, believable anger, having so much trouble sticking to her story.
And these are only 10 of the actors. There is not a bad performance in the bunch, an awesome comment for a big play on a small stage with 19 people.
Extraordinary things can happen in community theater. This is true with Mammoth Rep’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It runs Oct. 10-27, Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Edison Theatre. Tickets are $20/$18/$10. Call 760.934.6592.
Photo: Bluebird Imaging