I am always wary when I sit down to see a new production of To Kill a Mockingbird. For one thing, it is so easy for Midwesterners to mess up an Alabaman accent; secondly, child actors in serious roles can, occasionally, be disastrous. Luckily the production at the Park Square Theatre avoided both of these problems. Although Scout (Olivia Coon) was occasionally difficult to understand, the meaning of her words was always clear, and her performance was emotionally very strong.
Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a popular choice for American theatres, since it blends warmth and humour with serious issues like racism and rape. For the few out there who aren’t familiar with the story, Mockingbird is set in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. Atticus Finch, a lawyer, is a widower with two young children, Scout and Jem. Trouble starts brewing when he is charged with defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping the daughter of the poverty-stricken town drunk. Meanwhile, Atticus’ outspoken daughter, Scout, has to learn to deal with the criticism from other children that her father is defending a black man, and to be compassionate and see the world from others’ perspectives.
Park Square’s production is solid. It is anchored by Fred Wagner’s Atticus, who is earnest and believably weary; he knows what he has to do, he knows it is in vain, and understands that he must do it anyway. If there is a problem with Wagner’s performance, it is that he is so quiet and steadfast that he comes off as a little bland, and blends into the background. The same could be said for the adult Scout (Heather Stone), who does a rather wooden job of narrating the story. Luckily for the production, there are several supporting characters that brighten up the stage. Peggy O’Connell as Maudie Atkinson, a sympathetic neighbor, is charming and loveable, and the Finch’s servant, Calpurnia is played by audience favorite Thomasina Petrus, whose warmth emanates right through the building. The gospel choir, directed by Delores G. Matthews-Zeno is a joy to listen to every time they sing, and does an excellent job of portraying a group of people who have a harsh reality to deal with, but still find something in which there is comfort and joy.
As is frequently the case, the “bad guys” are rather more interesting than the “good guys”. Joel Raney (Bob Ewell) is such a convincing violent, drunken bigot that there were times I wanted to jump up on the stage and slap him – and I’m a pacifist. Similarly, Jane Froiland (Mayella Ewell) looks so uncomfortable in her own skin, so nervous about the lies she tells to put an innocent man behind bars, that it was almost unbearable.
Directed by David Mann, this production has no major flaws. The characters move around enough to make a talk-heavy play remain visually interesting, although the set isn’t particularly exciting. Overall, the production isn’t spectacular, and if you’ve already seen a decent staging of To Kill a Mockingbird, there is nothing new to see in this version. On the other hand, it is an honest rendition of a classic play, and that is enough to make it worth your time if you aren’t familiar with the play. Park Square is also putting on several matinees for groups of students, an effort which I applaud; this play may be old, but it still has much to teach us about humanity and compassion.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, produced at the Park Square Theatre, Hamm Building, 20 W. 7th Place, St Paul. April 4-14, 2013, tickets $38-58. Box office: 651-291-7005 or www.parksquaretheatre.org