OSF makes the best of a weak 'Mockingbird' script adaptation

I am a bit at a loss as to why OSF chose to present this theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee's iconic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Yes, it examines the themes of truth, justice and compassion and is a good counterbalance to "Measure for Measure." But, unfortunately, the playwright, Christopher Sergel, has not given us a very well-written play.

There is always a danger when the playwright, the director, the actors and the audience are in awe of the material. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is mythic in American literature and culture and an adaptor of Harper Lee's iconic 1960 novel does so at his peril.

This production is directed by Marion McClinton, an award-winning director new to OSF this season. His artistic conception is flawless and he really does make the best of this weak adaptation. I look forward to seeing what he can do with material worthy of his skill.

Sergel's script consists of well-known anecdotes from the novel strung together by narration that quotes verbatim great swaths of Harper Lee's prose. Neither the characters nor the action propel the story. It is painstakingly explained to us by the adult Jean Louise Finch (Scout), played by Festival veteran Dee Maaske as she meanders around the stage while the actors fill in her narration with little bits of dialogue.

To be sure, Mark Murphey does a smooth job as Atticus Finch. With his unruly forelock and wire-rimmed glasses, Murphey evokes the look and the spirit of Gregory Peck from the movie version. But this play never allows him to truly come alive as Atticus. He says all the right things, has all the right moves and is a predictable two-dimensional figure.

The same can be said for Isabell Monk O'Connor playing the housekeeper/nanny Calpurnia. She does a fine workmanlike job with a stereotyped role.

Unfortunately, the children playing the key roles of Scout (Kaya Van Dyke), her brother Jem (Braden Day) and their friend Dill (Leo Pierotti) are merely adequate. They avoid being too cute and remember their lines — even if they don't project them very well. A lot of their key banter about the elusive Boo Radley is completely lost to the audience.

If the rest of "To Kill a Mockingbird" was as good as its courtroom scene, it would be a powerful piece of theater, indeed. Michael Hume's dry, no-nonsense Judge Taylor, Howie Seago as Bob Ewell with his inexpressible rage against Finch, Susannah Flood as his diffident daughter and Peter Macon as the falsely accused Tom Robinson light up the stage. It is the only time that actual dramatic events drive the play.

It's been said about badly written material that sometimes you come out of the theater humming the scenery. This is the case with "To Kill a Mockingbird." Designer David Gallo has given us a stark proscenium arch with marvelous projections (courtesy of Lynn Jeffries) and spare props to evoke the small-town Southern milieu. Likewise, Deborah M. Dryden's costumes, Dawn Chiang's spectacular lighting and original music by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn take this production above and beyond its flaws.

Sergel was the president of Dramatic Publishing from 1970 to his death in 1993. It's a company known for publishing adaptations of classics from other mediums and licensing them to community theaters and schools. It is telling that he wrote this adaptation in 1970 and it wasn't produced by any theater until 1990. It is my guess that Dramatic Publishing has the rights to the Harper Lee novel and there are no other adaptations out there. Pity.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" runs through July 8 in the Bowmer Theatre.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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