It’s a story so ingrained in our culture that many mistake it for being non-fiction. To be fair, change the names and it substantially is. Atticus Finch, a fair-minded man surrounded by people who are mostly okay folks except for their views on race and the acceptable role of African Americans in the South during the 1930s, is tasked with defending Tom Robinson. Robinson, a black man, is a gentle giant who is clearly being railroaded with rape charges leveled by a girl who is obviously being oppressed by her white trash father. Observing all this are Finch’s two children, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her older brother Jeremy “Jem” Finch, along with their friend Dill.
This production, directed by Dixie Showalter, is narrated beautifully by Sarah Boggs as the adult Jean Louise, who adds commentary from time to time and fills in gaps in information when necessary, but the real star of the show is David Prather as Atticus, one of the most beloved characters in American fiction. The problem faced by anyone who portrays this part is the giant shadow cast by Gregory Peck. It is difficult not to think back to such a glorious portrayal anytime one sees this show performed. Additionally, long-time fans of the Guild will remember the last time this show was presented and wonder how anyone could follow effectively the golden pipes of Charlie Matthews. Well, Mr. Prather has nothing to fear. He puts his own stamp on the character and it is an impressive one. His laconic drawl belies a fire and zeal for doing the right thing and being the right person, even when it isn’t the popular thing to do. His portrayal of Atticus is masterful.
Also submitting a bravura performance is Olivia Raber as Scout, the strong-willed young woman who wants nothing more than to understand why her father is so beloved when all he seems to be is an old man who does nothing. Well, that and to finally figure out what’s going on with their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. Landen Stengel is also fine as Jem, but possibly the most refreshing portrayal is that of Kaleb Windland as Dill. Young Mr. Windland is quite charismatic and appears to have a long, stellar career on the stage ahead of him.
Giving two uncomfortably effective performances are Gabrielle Lazzarino and Bill Knotts as Mayella Ewell and her father Bob. The Ewells are the scum of the town who cling to the idea that they are still at least better than someone because, as Jean Louise puts it, if you scrub their filthy skin long enough, they are white somewhere down there under all those layers of grime and filth. And Bill Knott’s acting is all the more impressive when considering the fact that, in real life, he’s just the nicest guy around. But there is no trace of that nice guy on the stage as Bob Ewell spouts his racist, sexist, misogynistic diatribes in front of the jury or perpetrates cowardly attacks against the defenseless children under the cover of dark. And Gabriella Lazzarino strikes the perfect balance between despicable and pitiable. To quote my companion, she did a “…good job of evoking pity and a little disgust (for her false accusation) at once…”
As seems always to be true with the Guild, even the little parts are well done. Every actor takes his or her part seriously and presents it well. The same could be said for the special effects. The sets are nicely rendered and the use of lighting to create the impression of windows and storms is especially striking.
This is a show that is entertaining but important as well. See it for the joy of theatre, but see it also to be reminded of just how easy it is to lapse into mindless prejudice and how important it is to stand up against that bigotry, even when it feels like we’re doing it all alone. To Kill a Mockingbird plays April 20, 21, 27, and 28 at 8pm with 2:30 matinee performances on April 22 and 29. Do not miss it.