ORLANDO — As the lights go down inside the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Margeson Theater and the production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about to start, you might feel tempted to pose some questions to yourself before it begins.
Namely, how is a theatrical version likely to compare to the classic novel by Harper Lee, or to the 1962 movie version starring Gregory Peck, or perhaps how they go about condensing such a lengthy story into a two and a half hour stage version.
By the time the lights rise and the actors comes back on stage to take a bow, what you’re quite likely to be thinking about is the absolutely powerhouse cast that the Shakes brings together for this production, a group of performers who come to own their characters and — in a production that has moments that are quiet, humorous, and intensely tragic — just how moving an experience it is.
The production is built around actor Warren Kelley, who plays Atticus Finch, the struggling lawyer raising two children on his own in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression. Atticus is poor, by his own admission to his daughter, Scout, but still better off than some other residents mired in deep poverty. Atticus is even willing to accept turnips and other goods from his poorest clients in lieu of payment for his legal representation.
His daily existence gets considerably darker when the local judge assigns Atticus to represent a man accused of rape. It’s a case that Atticus feels certain he can’t win — his client in black, and the victim is a young white women, and Atticus doubts any all-white jury in the deep South can be convinced to acquit. But he prepares his case just the same — although when he learns from the local sheriff that some of the locals are considering breaking into the jail to lynch his client, Atticus decides to take the very dangerous step of sitting in front of the jail all night to keep watch.
Through it all, Atticus is a model of quiet dignity and civility in a very tumultuous time. He demonstrates infinite patience — for his two children and the occasional mischief they get into it, for the elderly woman next door whose health problems have made her increasingly cranky and hostile, and for the neighbors who resent the idea of a white man representing a black person accused of a serious crime.
As played by Kelley, Atticus would almost seem to be a very low-key figure because of the quiet way he speaks, but he’s not. He seems more like a model of reason and intelligence at a time what those attributes are sorely lacking, and he seems capable of tackling any challenge. The lynch mob, the trial itself, and those resentful townspeople, all put his strengths to a terrible test.
Kelley does a superb job in making Atticus seem ordinary, very real, humble, and also wonderfully empathetic; but he’s not alone in delivering towering performances. The play is largely told from the point of view of Scout, and Kennedy Joy Foristall is a delight as the loud and outspoken young tomboy who’s ready to beat up any boy who insults her daddy. So is Jamil Hangan, who has one of the play’s most riveting scenes as Tom Robinson, the accused rapist. His testimony during the trial, to both the defense and the prosecution, very powerfully evokes the tragedy of blind racial prejudice and how easily it gets exploited to cover up the bad behavior of others.
The play, written by Christopher Sergal and directed by Thomas Ouellette, is beautifully staged, and does a remarkable good job of evoking the era that Harper Lee set it in. The depression is an everyday reality, and the people have no choice but to accept it and do the best they can in trying circumstances. The first act guides us through who the major characters are and what their daily lives are like. Atticus has just been appointed to take the Robinson case, and only slowly does it become clear how much of a risk that decision will be for both Atticus and his entire family.
The second act focuses on the trial and its aftermath, and the way that poverty, ignorance and repeated failure to improve one’s lot in life leads so easily to the hunt for scapegoats. At first it’s Tom Robinson, but eventually Atticus, too, will be seen as a possible scapegoat in a community where racial prejudice is as much of a daily reality as the harsh conditions set by the depression.
This production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is powerfully moving, and not simply because of the strength of Harper Lee’s original story. A very gifted group of actors provide the story with the energy, emotion and humor it needs to leaving us feeling so emotionally drained, and rewarded, by the end. It’s a terrific show.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is being performed at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in downtown Orlando. Tickets start at $20 and reservations can be made by calling 407-447-1700 or through the website.
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