By Holly Johnson
Coming-of-age tale, courtroom drama, memory piece mixing themes of racism and lost innocence. Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” has it all, and the story, placed in the suffocating, yet verdant Deep South atmosphere of of 1935, resounds with meaning in our lives today. In a production adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, the Public House Theatre Company has created a glowing winner for the start of its sixth annual season, and the show fits neatly into the intimate CoHo Theatre space. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
The story tends toward melodrama and some underdeveloped characters, but the piece about small-town Alabama attorney Atticus Finch and his attempt to save a wrongly accused African American from execution during the Jim Crow era, lights up the stage nonetheless. Company artistic director Dustin Milberg has brought in a cluster of talent from the Western Oregon University in Monmouth, including director Ted Dechatelet, and actors Samuel Benedict, Thomas Slater and McKenna Lynn Twedt. It’s fun to see new faces, and these three onstage work extra-well together, helping to keep this longish performance tight and bright.
Twedt portrays Scout as both a six-year-old tomboy (her childhood voice is remarkable) and her grown-up version Jean Louise, who narrates the story as it unfolds. Also, Jeff Gorham, as a sturdy, appealing Atticus, plays no other character, and as the best-developed figure onstage, he’s central to the action, a stern but loving father to Scout and her brother, a even-tempered lawyer with a tough case on his hands. Six other actors play a variety of roles, and they’re all on equal footing, although some of the roles, particularly those of African Americans, touch on stereotypes.
Still, the actors manage to bring their own strengths to the parts. Jocelyn Seid moves fluidly from playing Atticus’ faithful housekeeper Calpernia to the grieving wife of the accused, Tom Robinson. She also leads the a cappella singing that is sprinkled throughout (the Gospel hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is marvelously rendered by the entire cast: it’s a sudden, visceral surprise emerging from the dim stage as the show begins).
James J. Dixon as the town sheriff, the local reverend and the mild-mannered Robinson uses body language effectively to create authority one moment, despair the next. Benedict is strong in a variety of rambunctious parts, including Scout’s sweet, over-imaginative playmate Dill and the vicious, knife-wielding Bob Ewell. He’s also music director for the production, and he’s put the a cappella snatches of songs from the period at just the right volume and in all the perfect places (If only there were just a few more spots where music might fit).
Victoria Blake is wonderfully changeable in various parts, and particularly frightening and hilarious as Mrs. Dubose, a sour old woman who presents a moral challenge for the children. Slater, a tall, gangly actor, who at first seems expressionless and meek as Scout’s bemused brother Jem, transforms himself into Judge Taylor with a change of posture and the deepening of his voice. “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for,” Atticus observes, and Taylor appears to know this instinctively as well, with his tired patience and sudden outbursts of frustration in the courtroom.
The 1962 film version of “Mockingbird” drew a plethora of Academy Awards, including an Oscar for the late Gregory Peck as Atticus and one for playwright Horton Foote for best adapted screenplay. The American Film Institute later named Atticus Finch as the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.
The play will be studied and performed in some Portland high schools this fall as part of a racial equity training program. It runs well over two hours with one intermission.