Compass Rose is a theater and a training institution, and so has selected a play which can serve as training to all of us. To Kill a Mockingbird is set in 1935, in the deep South, and on its surface appears to be a story of racial injustice. But the genius of Harper Lee’s novel, and Christopher Sergel’s intelligent adaptation, is that it is really a story of how to maintain dignity, and compassion, in the face of racial injustice, or any injustice.
You probably know this story, at least in general outline. Scout (Maggie Baum) and Jim (Casey Baum) are the two later-in-life children of the widower and lawyer Atticus Finch (Gary Goodson). Their father, who is fifty and spends much of his time in his office, embarrasses the kids, who would like a father with an exciting job, such as garbage collector. Their embarrassment grows when Atticus agrees to represent Tom Robinson (Lonnie Simmons), an African-American accused of assaulting and raping the daughter (Olivia Ercolano) of the town rummy, Bob Ewell (Ric Andersen). Ewell is a disreputable bum, but he has a higher social status than Robinson, because he is white and Robinson is black. The town has convicted Robinson before a word of testimony is taken, and most people can’t understand why Finch would ever take his case.
The story is about Scout’s discovery, in her father, of what it is like to be a human being in full. Atticus won’t teach his children how to shoot, thus further de-masculining him in their eyes, but when they discover the County Sheriff (Mike Dunlop) giving their father a rifle to shoot a rabid dog because Attica is a better shot than the Sheriff, Scout is forced to reconsider. Later, when the children spot Atticus reading in front of the county jail, the sole human being between Robinson and a lynch mob headed by his old client Gilmer (Chris Shea), they learn that the lynchpins of non-violent confrontation are unshakeable conviction and empathy for the foe. We do too.
Much of To Kill a Mockingbird is given over to a courtroom scene in which Atticus, given free reign by a fair judge (Robert Mitchell), demonstrates to any fair-minded person that Tom Robinson could not possibly be guilty. As this is the deep South, and 1935, evidence and logic might not be enough to acquit a black man, but it is certainly enough to send the despicable Ewell over the deep end, vowing to revenge himself on Atticus.
Because this is the story of a young girl’s growing understanding of her father, and through him of the world, a great deal of the production depends on the degree that the actor inhabiting that child can manifest that growth. Acting is hard for a child because he lacks the experience and knowledge that most actors use to inform their work. When actor Maggie Baum was born nine years ago, integration had been the law of the land for thirty-nine years. It doesn’t matter; she is first-rate. Baum exhibits the power and stubbornness which characterizes Lee’s portrait of Scout with an ease and certainty which would do a much older actor proud.
Timothy DeSimone also turns in an astonishing performance as Scout’s buddy Dill, a precocious kid generally thought to be modeled on Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. It is, to be candid, never entirely clear why Dill is in this story; he has run away from home to spend time with the Finches, and tickles them, and us, with his clever plans and charisma, but he brings nothing to Scout’s insight about her father, or our insight about the world of the play. Thus to hold our attention the actor portraying Dill must radiate every aspect of the character’s sly gifts, his mischievousness and his good heart. DeSimone is the equal of all these tasks, in combustible character every moment he is on stage.
These young actors work hand in glove with a first-rate cast of adult actors, including especially Gary Goodson as Finch, Elizabeth Jernigan as a grown-up Scout who brings perspective to her narrative, and Kristala Pouncy Smart, who plays the Finches’ nanny Calpurnia. Lee describes Calpurnia as a dominating presence in the household, and Smart’s Calpurnia is all of that – powerful, insistent, urgent, and not afraid to apply the back of her hand when appropriate. It is a portrayal so full that it compels us to wonder how a society could with such ease trust its children to African-Americans when it would not sit down to dinner with them.
Jernigan, whose voice is the first one heard on stage, gives the play instant credibility. She makes the present-day Scout strong and edgy; she speaks with the voice of a woman who has learned hard lessons, and will not let them be forgotten.
Like everyone else in the production, including the children, her accent is spot-on, but with her body and her pacing, we understand that present-day Scout has become a northern woman with a southern background.
As for Goodson, he is as far away from the movie version of Atticus Finch as you can imagine. Balding, impeccably dressed, a little fleshy, Goodson seems to be every bit the soft old man Scout believes him to be at the outset. But he suddenly takes on a military bearing – and seems to lose ten pounds – when he takes the rifle and shoots the mad dog, and in the courtroom he is a giant. Prowling around the tiny stage, looming over the Prosecutor (Shea), it seems like he owns the trial – and the theater, too.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Closes November 18, 2012
Compass Rose Studio Theater
1011 Bay Ridge Ave
Annapolis, MD 21403
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
And the first-rate director has hired first-rate performers; there is not a bad performance in the production. I particularly liked Ercolano, who has a memorable breakdown on cross-examination; Faith Potts, who plays two very different characters; Simmons, who as Robinson gives a compelling picture of a member of a subjugated race trying to maintain his dignity; and Andersen, who joyously wallows in one of the few opportunities an actor has to play a man who is irredeemably evil.
I could go on, but that would interfere with time that you should be spending on reserving tickets.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Adapted by Christopher Sergel from a novel by Harper Lee. Directed by Brandon McCoy. Features Gary Goodson, Maggie Baum, Casey Baum, Elizabeth Jernigan, Kristala Pouncy Smart, Faith Potts, Mike Dunlop, Timothy DeSimone, Sue Struve, Chris Shea, Lonnie Simmons, Olivia Ercolano, Ric Andersen, Tim German, Robert Mitchell and Tim Wolf. Lighting design by Eric Bowers, costume design by Julie Bays, sound design by Sarah Wade, set design and construction by Thanh Van Lam. Andrew Stoffel and Jonathan Rubin served as stage managers; Jo Ann and Mike Gidos did props and set decoration, and Elizabeth Jernigan was the scenic painter. Produced by Compass Rose Studio Theater. Reviewed by Tim Treanor