By Annette Hinkle
If there is such a thing as a seminal American novel, then “To Kill a Mockingbird” would have to be at the top of the list.
Set in Alabama in the depths of the Depression, Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1960 novel which tackles the subjects of race, segregation, poverty and prejudice. The book came out in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle and though we’d like to think the issues it raises are firmly entrenched in the rear view mirror of the 21st century, given current political and societal polarization playing out across the nation — and its accompanying hateful rhetoric — Lee’s Maycomb County circa 1935 can look an awful lot like Main Street U.S.A. in 2014.
Which is why it’s vital to keep Lee’s message of tolerance and hope alive for the next generation.
To that end, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor is currently offering a beautifully realized stage adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Designed specifically for young audiences as part of its “Literature Live!” series, which takes novels that are part of middle and high school English curriculums and brings them to the stage, this production is one that will hit home with adults as well — particularly those who recall being deeply affected by the novel when they first read it themselves.
There’s good reason for that. The story of one man willing to stay true to his convictions while defying small town convention is a classic and timeless theme and one that resonates with all ages.
Joe Minutillo, a former educator, directs this moving production which tells the story of Atticus Finch (Scott Eck), a small town lawyer who takes on the case of Tom Robinson (Chauncy Thomas). Robinson is a local black man accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (Jessica Mortellaro), who lives not far from him in the poorest quarter of town.
As the single father of two young children, Scout (Jemma Kosanke) and Jem (Hudson Troy), Atticus relies heavily on his black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Cooki Winborn), to run the household and enforce the strong moral code by which he expects himself and his children to abide. Also helping to put things in context is Miss Maudie (Carolyn Popp), a sympathetic neighbor.
But Atticus’ decision to defend Robinson brings serious repercussions to the family which, while perhaps predictable, force him to confront the ugliest side of humanity in ways that his children can understand. Scout is confused as to why classmates are taunting her about her father’s defense of a black man and difficult questions soon pepper their conversations.
Be forewarned — though it is highly offensive and extremely coarse in this day and age, the language used in this production is accurate for the deep South in the time in which the story is set. Parents might want to consider whether their own children are yet ready for the material or if they, themselves are prepared to tackle the questions and discussions that may follow.
There is a lot of material to digest in this production and Minutillo has worked more of Lee’s words into the play with the presence of a narrator (played by Chloë Dirksen) who represents the adult Scout. Her role is akin to a tour guide and she moves among the actors undetected as she describes the political and social climate of the day and recalls the events which were a defining moment in her childhood. It’s a technique that directly reflects the structure of Lee’s novel and while it allows more of the book’s minor characters to be introduced and referenced, younger audiences may find the device a bit confusing as there are characters spoken about who never appear on stage.
But ultimately, what makes “To Kill A Mockingbird” so effective — both in book form and in this stage production —is the fact that it is told from the point of view of the guileless children, Jem, Scout and Dill (Thomas Schiavoni), a visitor who spends summers in Maycomb with his aunt. Through their friendship and mischief making, the three youngsters dip their toes in the world of adult concerns, not only by trying to make their reclusive and allegedly psychotic neighbor, Boo Radley, “come out,” but also in the fact they have to turn to the adults in their lives to help them understand unfathomable concepts such as rape and racism.
Atticus does just that in a way that is unabashedly honest and open (no accident that his children refer to him by his first name). That honesty is another reason for the resonance of this piece. Atticus’ determination to stand as a beacon for his children by encouraging them to see life from the point of view of every person they encounter, including thug-like racists who show up at the country jail seeking to lynch his client, illustrates the uncompromising nature of his character.
The cast does a great job of bringing Mockingbird to life — particularly Kosanke, Troy and Schiavoni, who, despite their young age, must advance the plot and are the center on which the entire wheel turns. Not an easy task for a trio of young actors not yet in their teens. It’s a lot of dialogue and it would be great to see them slow down a bit as some of the best moments in the play rush by much too quickly. Eck also does a fine turn as Atticus Finch, as does Winborn who, as Calpurnia, is frighteningly firm, yet loving and protective toward her young charges, while Thomas offers an incredibly moving performance as Tom Robinson on the witness stand.
Rounding out the extremely capable cast is Rob DiSario as Heck Tate, William Sturek as Judge Taylor and Mr. Cunningham, Joe Pallister as Bob Ewell and Al Bundonis as Mr. Gilmer.
And underscoring it all is the innocence of Scout, who can’t understand why her friends and neighbors are turning against her family. She’s a very little girl who can disarm the angriest of mobs with a simple reminder, not of their differences, but of what they have in common. It’s a lesson that we’d all do well to remember in this divisive age and one that, thanks to Harper Lee, Atticus Finch will never let us forget.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” runs through November 29 at the Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Set design is by Gary Hygom with lighting by Mike Billings. In addition to weekday shows for school groups, public performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. with matinees on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Students are admitted free with ID. Adults are $25. Weekday show times vary and are open to the public, if available. Call (631) 725-9500 to reserve or visit baystreet.org.