- Chief Toronto Theatre Critic
Even after having taught this American classic to high school students for over thirty years, I never thought its story can still pack an emotional wallop. It did, courtesy of Christopher Sergel’s script and this highly engaging Stratford production directed with clear vision and compassionate insight by Nigel Shawn Williams.
This production of Sergel’s dramatization is set in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a tumultuous historical event of epic proportions. The adult Jean Louise as the narrator takes us on a journey back into her memories of growing up in 1934 Maycomb, Alabama, with her widower father, Atticus, and her older brother Jeremy (Jem).
To Kill A Mockingbird contains seeds of a memory play as it allows the audience to use its imagination without the necessity of reproducing everything on the stage. Denyse Karn’s set design of only essentials from the novel (some examples include the picket fence, hanging laundry on a clothesline, overhead branches of the suggestion of the Radley tree, the door to the Finch home) fluidly allows the actors to move required set pieces on and off the stage with tremendous ease. By maintaining this structure of memory, Sergel’s Mockingbird does not need to follow the same linear pattern of events nor include some of the characters established in Lee’s novel. While the printed text itself still offers a powerful commentary on the issue of Maycomb’s ‘usual disease’, the play establishes its own strong emotional connections and ties the audience can make to characters and events.
And does it ever pack a punch. Space restraints will not allow me to comment on everything as I do not want to spoil Mr. Williams’ exceptional staging. The hook occurs at the top of the show where the audience sees flashes of historical printed news articles concerning the assassination of King. We even hear his voice accompanied by the echoing gun shot sound that ended his life. The appearance of the lynch mob at the jail cell is horrifying and shocking. I was riveted on every word spoken at Tom Robinson’s trial, its unfairness, and injustice. The ‘piece de resistance’ is Act Two’s longest journey home for Scout and Jem from the pageant. It left me in tears, like many around me, and this performance was a student matinee.
The play is marvelously and flawlessly cast. Each performer makes intuitive and definitive actor choices to become living, breathing realities on the Festival stage. Irene Poole graciously propels the story action forward at the top of the show. Her adult Jean Louise exudes a quiet, inner strength of an informed conscience and perspective obviously modeled after her father. As Atticus Finch, Jonathan Goad’s performance is truly and convincingly courageous at heart. While showing in his physicality the anguish and toll of Tom Robinson’s defense trial, Mr. Goad’s reassuring voice and determined spirit resonated within me even though I knew how the trial will conclude.
Supporting cast members equally match the level of intensity of Poole and Goad. While the housekeeper, Calpurnia, is described by the young Scout as ‘angles and bones’, Sophia Walker presents a decent, likeable lady who only wants what’s best for the children. Michelle Giroux’s Maudie Atkinson is decent and kind who, like Calpurnia, wants only what’s best for the children. Jacklyn Francis has great fun in showing the gossipy and nosy Stephanie Crawford. Marion Adler as the cantankerous Mrs. Dubose became an important lesson of courage for Jem and Scout. As sheriff Heck Tate, Tim Campbell is self-assured that all with Bob Ewell has been settled accordingly. Joseph Ziegler is a matter of fact, no nonsense Judge Taylor.
As white trash Bob Ewell and his daughter, Mayella, Randy Hughson and Jonelle Gunderson creepily made my skin crawl. Their ill fitting and ill-kempt costumes appeared so filthy that I honestly thought bugs would start to crawl out from underneath the clothing fabric. Matthew G. Brown delivers a powerfully credible and anguished performance as the wronged Tom Robinson who does not deserve what happened to him. Ryan Wilkie plays brothers Nathan and Arthur Radley with quiet dignity. Without spoiling anything else, Mr. Wilkie is most deserving of his recognition at the curtain call.
Clara Poppy Kushnir, Jacob Skiba and Hunter Smalley as the young Scout, Jem and Dill stole my heart. They are three of several reasons why the production works magnificently. Kushnir and Skiba capture squabbling, young sibling rivalry with gusto and flair while also showing they will always be there for each other. Dill is modeled after Miss Lee’s friend, author Truman Capote, and Smalley wonderfully proves this connection with his round face and wide grin from ear to ear.
Final comments: Assistant director Laura Vingoe-Cram wrote in the Playbill how Harper Lee wanted us to ‘see the world in more than black and white’. Great theatre inspires and invites audiences to do this through simple advice Atticus shares with Scout: “climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it”. Through laughter and tears, this Mockingbird is one which must be seen.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, in Stratford until November 4, 2018. Visit www.stratfordfestival.ca for further information or purchase tickets online. You may also purchase tickets at 1-800-567-1600 or 1-519-273-1600.
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams