AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Christopher Sergel
based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 903-6000

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Doing the right thing isn't always easy or popular.The situations in "To Kill a Mockingbird" attest to that statement. TheatreWorks is staging Christopher Sergel's 1970 dramatization of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to mark the 50th anniversary of the latter's publication.

Set in Maycomb, Ala., in 1935, the plot focuses on 50-year-old single father Atticus Finch (Anthony Newfield), and his two children, tomboyish Scout (Sierra Stephens) and her older brother, Jem (Eric Colvin). Also absorbing those lessons is the imaginative young Dill (Gabriel Hoffman), whose wealthy but negligent parents have left him in the care of his aunt. Atticus is a lawyer who has been assigned to defend a young black man, Tom Robinson (Philipe D. Preston), who has been accused of beating and raping a white woman.

This is the pre-integration South, a time when black people had few rights and many white people used racial epithets for them. In Tom's trial, for instance, the prosecuting attorney, played by Kevin Blackton, constantly calls him "boy," even though he's a married man with three children and a steady job. Atticus, on the other hand, treats Tom with respect. In his impassioned final speech to the jury (apparently all male), he stresses that an unbiased court system is the very foundation of American society and that every person is entitled to a fair trial. Atticus tries to teach his children the importance of treating everyone well even when they face the taunts of people who disparage him because of his role as Tom's defense attorney.

Director Robert Kelley skillfully guides his talented cast through the play's emotional ups and downs, building tension to just the right level before easing off. Newfield is calmly authoritative as the play's moral center. Rod Gnapp plays his nemesis, Bob Ewell, a drunken no-good who claims that Tom raped his daughter Mayella (a fearful, then defiant Blythe Foster). Also noteworthy are Cathleen Riddley as Calpurnia, black housekeeper for the Finch family; Nancy Carlin as Miss Maudie Atkinson, a kindly neighbor who serves as narrator; Anne Buelteman as the gossipy Miss Stephanie Crawford; L. Peter Callender as Reverend Sykes, leader of the black church; and Michael Ray Wisely as Heck Tate, the honest sheriff. Playing several roles are Blackton, Howard Swain and Phoebe Moyer. The primary problem with this production is that the three children are difficult to understand, especially with their accents.

Andrea Bechert's set features the facades of four homes. The addition of trees or courtroom furniture allows for easy set changes. Costumes are by Allison Connor, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Cliff Caruthers. Richard Lane is the fight director.

Although we like to think of ourselves as a more enlightened society than we were in 1935, racism still creeps in, perhaps not so much against black people as against Hispanics, Middle Easterners and others who are perceived as threats to our security or economy. Hence, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is still relevant today. I was pleased to see a number of young people at the Sunday evening performance I attended.

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