About halfway through New Village Arts’ current To Kill a Mockingbird, new kid on the block Charles (Dill) Harris says something that at least one grown-up has been thinking for a long time. No wonder, he figures, hermit Arthur (Boo) Radley has holed up in his house since he was a teenager—the rumors that have dogged him grow more vicious by the year, fueled by that uniquely adult mix of prejudice and ignorance.
Not coincidentally, Dill decides he’ll be a clown when he gets older, with a little different spin to his game: “I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks!”
The setting, as you’ll recall from the magnificent 1962 film and Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel two years before, is 1930s small-town Alabama; Southern-style racial prejudice, vigilante justice and shuttered lives drive this story about white lawyer Atticus Finch, his defense of an innocent black man charged with the rape of a white woman, the defendant’s grisly shotgun murder and the startling climax. The key, though, is that Lee wanted her story told by an adult as seen through the eyes of a child—and directors Kristianne Kurner and Justin Lang get the message in this excellent staging, certainly among the best in New Village Arts’ 13 seasons.
In a subplot masterstroke, Lee conceived Boo as white, because she reasoned that the folks in her fictional town of Maylock know no bounds to their bigotry. Accordingly, widower Finch (Manny Fernandes) has garnered his share of animosity among Maylock’s whites; cranky Mrs. Dubose (Kathi Copeland) calls him a “nigga-lover,” and loose cannon Bob Ewell (Max Macke), the plaintiff’s father, eventually spits in his face and threatens his life.
Stoic beyond earthly reason, Finch asks everybody to consider the history behind his detractors’ behaviors. You can never truly know anybody, he asserts, “until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” To do less, Finch housekeeper Calpurnia says, is “to kill a mockingbird,” which innocently pleases us through its wondrous gift of song.
But racist Maylock won’t hear of it. Atticus’ young children, Jem and Scout (Dylan Nalbandian and Katelyn Katz), are incredulous that defendant Tom Robinson (Durwood Murray) is found guilty and later shot to death, especially since upstanding dad defended him. Other family problems take on a stigma of their own—Lee and stage adapter Christopher Sergel never come out and say it, but Ewell may indeed be his daughter Mayella’s attacker. Ewell, already enraged over Finch’s defense of Robinson, decides to exact revenge in the most unsettling possible way.
The unlikely conclusion will leave a lasting impression on Jem and Scout, so indelible that Lee almost had no choice but to set her book as a memory piece. Time may heal all wounds, but the scar tissue can run interminably deep—and narrator Jean Louise Finch (Scout now 25 years removed) recounts the story accordingly yet without judgment, a trait she inherited from her one-in-a-million dad.
Meanwhile, Fernandes’ Atticus is fit to bust at the waves of small-town prejudice around him, but a crack on Ewell’s use of tobacco is about the worst he musters. In his re-creation of La Jolla Playhouse co-founder Gregory Peck’s film role, Fernandes is outstanding at straddling that exhaustive line, with his pontifical Atticus somehow leaving the negativism to those who engender it. Nalbandian, Katz and Matthew Mohler as Dill get wide berths in their roles as—well—kids. They’re an attractive, exceedingly hardworking trio, and their comprehension and sense of nuance is as thorough as any of the adults’ (Katz makes a terrific tomboy, but facially, she looks a smidgen older than her character).
Murray’s petrified Tom; Macke’s troubled Ewell; Kurner’s ironical Jean Louise; Copeland’s crotchety Mrs. Dubose; Lang’s bloodied but unbowed Boo; Jim Winkler’s unlikely arbiter Sheriff Heck Tate; David Macy-Beckwith’s weary Judge Taylor; Walter Murray’s proper Reverend Sykes; Eric Poppick’s sleazoid plaintiff’s attorney Horace Gilmer: All have an excellent grasp on their subtextual assignments. Yolanda Franklin has the right idea for mother-figure Calpurnia, but she could incorporate a little more comic relief in the scenes that call for it. And Lauren King’s Mayella needs almost to descend into madness at her alleged abuse. Her sketchy dad, after all, routinely forgets himself; so should she.
Sherrice Kelly’s lights and Bill Bradbury’s sound design and excellent original music are at once subtle and reflective. The Radley and Finch houses are virtually next door, and set designer Tim Wallace’s background renderings set the tone in establishing the commercial and social distances between them. Atticus, of course, is the only impeccable dresser in the crowd, with everybody else ranging from neat to tousled to disheveled, and Mary Larson’s costumes reflect the right degree for each.
Invisibly and touchingly, Boo has left a few little gifts for the kids as his way of introducing himself. Prop designer Kacia Castelli seems to have put some nice work into their appearance, whether or not she thought they’d carry from the stage.
Sergel’s adaptation is performed every May outside the courthouse at Monroeville, Ala., Lee’s birthplace, with the townspeople playing the roles. The buzz is that the city truly aspires to the novel’s ideals—in so doing, it marks itself among the country’s civil rights landmarks, just as the movie, book and play reflect race relations as the national disgrace they once were. Our civil rights stances need work, but NVA’s production is a solid reminder of the country’s real-life Atticus Finches and the extent to which they’ve raised us up. Very, very good.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of April 12. To Kill a Mockingbird runs through May 4 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $26-$31. 760-433-3245, newvillagearts.org.