That’s the word that continues to run through my head today after watching the opening night performance of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park last night. Director Eric Ting stripped away all the extraneous elements to stage this magnificent piece of American literature in a way that spotlights the story. A perfect story. My favorite story.
I’ll be honest; I had considerable anxiety about this production when I first heard about the director’s choices to go minimal. To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite novel of all time. My worry was quickly gone as soon as the actors took the stage.
I supposed the fondness I have for the Harper Lee classic could cloud my judgment. Either way. However, the genuine tears streaming down my face at multiple times indicate to me that whatever Ting has done with it has worked and worked well.
Every 9th grade English student probably read the book; the story is told through the eyes of Scout, a 9-year-old tomboy, but through memories as the now grown up version of her recounts the story with insight and maturity. I love this script; it emphasizes all the important moments from the book and again, due to the marvelous way its staged, the story is front and center.
The inventive staging starts from the beginning of the play. We meet Jean Louise Finch as an adult as Dale Hodges moseys her way onto the stage from the audience. It’s a brilliant mechanism to demonstrate that she is outside the memories that are about to unfold. Hodges is accessible, likable, and conversational as this grown-up-girl, and spryly remains on stage for most of the two-hour plus run time.
John Feltch is an unlikely Atticus Finch. Oh, he’s tall and handsome. He’s unusually charismatic. But unlike Gregory Peck, Feltch is quirky. His idiosyncrasies humanize the character in unexpected ways; despite his choices and mannerisms – or perhaps because of them – I never doubted his motives or his actions.
Perhaps most of my anxiety lay in the casting of the children in the story. They are central to the action and it is imperative that they be solid actors. Well, rest assured, these three are some of the finest child performers you’ll ever see on Cincinnati stages. At least two of them CCM Prep, Scout (Brooke Chamberlin), Jem (Aidan McCracken), and Dill (Ty Joseph Shelton) perform with confidence. All three have terrific shining moments but perhaps most notable were two scenes for Chamberlin.
As you’ll remember from the novel, Scout confronts Mr. Walter Cunningham (Randy Lee Bailey) outside of the county jail and humanizes everything. The actress is so sincere in her portrayal; I was a complete puddle on the floor at the end of that scene. And then again, when she meets Boo Radley (Seth Wallen) for the first time and sweetly and innocently calls him “Mr. Boo . . .” well, let’s just say that there weren’t enough Kleenex in my briefcase.
Every performance was on target. From Annie Fitzpatrick’s “Miss Stephanie,” the town gossip to Zouanne LeRoy’s mean and nasty “Mrs. Dubose,” the townspeople were represented well. Torie Wiggins, who played Calpurnia in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production several years ago, practically steals the show with her sass. Jared Joplin’s prosecutor is snide, aggressive, and shows a sign of him I’ve not seen before. Kevin Cristaldi’s “Bob Ewell” is thoroughly despicable and unempathetic – exactly what you want him to be. “Mayella” is broken, pathetic, and heart-wrenching as played by Magan Wiles. And when Gabriel Lawrence (“Tom Robinson”) looks around the room amazed and terrified at the turnout for his trial he was shockingly mesmerizing. Lawrence puts in a very believable (and relevant) performance. And there are solid turns from Renika Williams as “Helen Robinson,” Barry Mulholland (“Judge Taylor”), and the entirety of the cast.
I can’t imagine what else you would want or need from this play.
It’s a classic story set in 1930’s Alabama. Unfortunately, the themes are still as relevant in 2016. It’s a timeless novel and now a memorable production. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s likely the best thing you’ll see all spring.
I cannot recommend highly enough that you call the box office or go online immediately to get tickets for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Click here for more information. They have extended the show for an extra week (even before it opened) so it now runs through early/mid April.