STRATFORD, Ont.—It didn’t seem such a great idea 11 years ago when the Stratford Festival first put To Kill A Mockingbird on stage. Back then, Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel seemed serviceable and little more—and the festival’s 2018 remounting gives no reason for altering that verdict.
The script’s Hallmark Playhouse efficiency scarcely justifies its presence in a playbill that should be driven by higher standards. As with many of the festival’s previous involvements with mediocre stage versions of popular novels, its necessity seems questionable.
It’s back at Stratford to make money—and the festival is sufficiently confident of its box-office potential that this new production is happening in the 1800-seat Festival Theatre rather than in its previous home—the smaller Avon.
Still, it would be unfair to suggest that the festival’s intent is purely mercenary. Harper Lee’s profoundly moving memory piece about racism and human decency in thirties Alabama dovetails neatly with artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s planning of a season that examines the many faces of freedom. Furthermore, in directing this current Stratford revival, Nigel Shawn Williams has pursued a tougher, more probing vision of Lee’s novel. That primal scream that abruptly shatters the evening’s most tragic moment brings to the surface the story’s boiling undercurrents. The production seems to be pleading with audiences to understand that To Kill A Mockingbird is more than just feel-good entertainment for white liberals. It is not comfort food. And ultimately Atticus Finch, the southern lawyer who brooks racial hatred and death threats when he defends a black man on charges of rape, may prove too complicated to be an easy candidate for sainthood.
Christopher Sergel wrote this adaptation, still sanctioned by the Harper Lee estate, in 1990—years before Go Set A Watchman, a second and long-concealed Lee novel containing a less idealized portrait of Atticus, exploded onto the scene. The controversy concerning that 2015 book casts an uneasy shadow over this new Stratford production. Further muddying the waters is the impending arrival on Broadway of what promises to be a revisionist stage version of To Kill A Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin, creator of television’s The West Wing. Sorkin has won a legal battle with the Lee estate over a script that reportedly will give us an Atticus who is not quite the upright foe of racism that popular culture imagines him to be.
At Stratford, therefore, director Nigel Shawn Williams is saddled with an adaptation that time may well have passed by. Indeed, he revealed in a recent interview with The Toronto Star that the Lee estate had blocked his own attempts to make Sergel’s dramatization more relevant. Which perhaps explains why this is a production that frequently seems to be struggling to become something else, although it does feature an intriguing portrayal of Atticus from the always surprising Jonathan Goad.
The novel was a memory piece, filtered through the perspective of Scout, the widowed Atticus’s precocious and inquisitive pre-teen daughter. The stage adaptation gives us the adult Scout looking back to the most salient event of her childhood—the furore that erupts over the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man, for the rape of a 19-year-old white girl, and the outrage Atticus Finch causes among his fellow white citizens for having the temerity to defend him.
Irene Poole portrays the older Scout, out of the overalls of her childhood and into something of a jeans-trendy present. There’s no opportunity for nostalgia here when she starts addressing the audience—not when her opening words are cut short by gunshots and newsreel footage dealing with the murder of civil rights activist Martin Luther King and the turbulent aftermath. It’s from this springboard that the production then transports us back to Alabama in 1935 and to a culture that made King’s later emergence as a civil rights leader so inevitable and necessary.
Poole’s addresses to the audience are not dips into soft-centered memory; rather there’s an edgy melancholy as she reflects on what did happen all those years ago and on what might have been. But there’s an unfortunate overkill in the way the production uses this character. Poole becomes far too obtrusive a presence. The way in which she solemnly echoes the dialogue of other characters is an irritant. So is the degree to which the adult Scout insinuates herself into the dramatic fabric of the past. This is particularly true of the trial scene where she moves about the courtroom, at one point staring at her father with studied significance, at another seating herself next to the 19-year-old complainant, as though trying to convey some kind of statement through intense looks and body language.
The play accommodates somewhat uneasily to the Festival Theatre’s stage—a challenge that Williams, supported by designers Denyse Karn (sets) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting), strives to overcome. But sometimes it’s a no-win situation. An important element of the trial scene has to do with the Finch kids sneaking into the courtroom and watching proceedings from the segregated “colored” section. The upper level of the stage’s famed balcony might seem a perfect vantage point for Scout and her brother to peek down through the railings—until a later moment in the script makes the courtroom geography nonsensical.
Meanwhile, the trial itself lacks sustained dramatic momentum: it sometimes seems static and lacking in tension. The liveliest moments involve the testimonies of Jonelle Gunderson, sullen, slack-jawed and pitiable as the alleged 19-year-old rape victim and Randy Hughson roaring through his whiskers as her racist and abusive dad. But the decks seem stacked here, so much so that the two emerge as white trash caricatures, set up to invite our derision, and so crudely drawn that they diminish the dramatic currency of the material. For truer emotional depth, we need to look to the inherent dignity, fumbling, and struggling though his testimony may be, of Matthew G. Brown as the accused man. Or to the simple eloquence, of Atticus’s final address to the jury—a worried advocate trying his best.
There are, therefore, problems of tone. Sometimes, components simply don’t mesh. For example, the kids in this story are crucial both to the original novel and the present play—but in this production, they are sometimes tiresome and we wish they would go away.
Other performances do resonate. Tim Campbell is excellent as a lawman struggling with his own integrity. And Sophia Walker is outstanding as Calpurnia, the Finch family’s black housekeeper whose devotion to the children is as consistent as her fierce inner rage over the racism poisoning her world.
The final moments, when the children’s lives are in jeopardy, are chillingly rendered without succumbing to the melodramatics that the script invites. And there’s a genuine dramatic balance to that memorable scene where Atticus parks himself on a kitchen chair outside the jailhouse door to protect his helpless client from murderous KKK thugs. This is the scene where Clare Poppy Kushnir, in the role of the young Scout, has her best moments by cutting this lynch mob down to size in her own inimitable—albeit uncomprehending—tomboy fashion.
And what of Atticus? Here, any actor playing this role is contending with the ghost of Gregory Peck in the movie. Peck invested Atticus with a quiet nobility and saintliness, so much so that many fans of To Kill A Mockingbird identify more with the Atticus of the film than with the Atticus of the book. But at Stratford we get the Atticus Finch of Jonathan Goad—slow-speaking, uncharismatic, slightly stooped, an unprepossessing figure as he heads to court in an ill-fitting suit carrying a briefcase that has seen better days. Definitely not your conventional knight in shining armor—moreover a lawyer who has taken on Tom Robinson’s defense not necessarily out of moral passion or social conviction but because he has been assigned to it by the system. So how much does this Atticus remain a creature of a culture that has spawned and nurtured him? Is he just doing his job—and reluctantly? Perhaps. But against this, we have this fierce devotion to family, a quiet but continuing grief over the loss of his wife, and a principled conviction that he must serve the imperatives of justice and truth regardless of what may lurk in his own heart. An inbuilt serenity is not really his solace: uncertainties flicker. Is this reading too much into Goad’s portrayal? Again, perhaps. But the complications are subtly present, and that’s something we don’t always get. There’s something to be said for a production on Mockingbird that leaves us wondering about Atticus Finch’s inner life.
This article was originally published in Capital Critics’ Circle on June 6, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
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This post was written by Jamie Portman.
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