Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ

Brent Harris and Emmanuelle Nadeau
The powerful and yet sensitive stage version of the great American classic To Kill a Mockingbird premiered last weekend at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. 

As with all the plays from the STNJ, this is an outstanding production... from the marvelous casting, to the staging, the superior sets and time perfect costumes. The director is Joseph Discher, a 21 year veteran of the STNJ. Leading the excellent cast are Brent Harris as Atticus Finch, Nisi Sturgis as the adult Jean Louise Finch who is the narrator, and Emmanuelle Nadeau as the young Jean Louise Finch (Scout). 

To Kill a Mockingbird was born as a book that many consider the finest, or at least the most impactful book, later movie, ever written about the dark period in American history when racial and social injustice was rampant, particularly in the Deep South. This now classic tale of racial injustice, the loss of innocence for two young children, and the compassion and virtue of a small town lawyer set in the fictitious Maycomb, Alabama in 1930 won the Pulitzer Prize for author Harper Lee, and garnered a "Best Film" Academy Award for the 1962  movie version.
The honors don't stop there; It is twenty-fifth on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest American movies of all time. The name of the central character of the drama...Atticus Finch... has become synonymous with a man of great integrity and defender of social justice. In fact, the AFI named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one "every adult should read before they die." And, of course, Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his brilliant performance.

It is important to note, particularly for the fans of the movie, the stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel (1970) more closely follows the book. The core plot, however is the same; the story of two children, sister Scout and brother Jem, and their idyllic childhood in the midst of the Great Depression. Everything changes when a white woman, Mayella Ewell, accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape. Though he is obviously innocent, the outcome of his trial is such a foregone conclusion that no lawyer will step forward to defend him - except Atticus Finch, a man who risked it all to stand up for what he believed in. His compassionate defense costs him many friendships but earns him the respect and admiration of his two motherless children. 

Most of the first act is centered on the children and how they deal with the ridicule and torments from classmates and adults aimed at their father. The second act is the trial of Tom Robinson and the aftermath.

Brent Harris, who bears a good resemblance to Gregory Peck, is perfect as Atticus the noble father. Nisi Sturgis is fine as the adult Scout who shares with the audience the special moments of her childhood. The three children in the cast are marvelous. In addition to Emmanuelle Nadeau as the young Jean Louise Finch (Scout), Frankie Seratch plays Scouts older brother Jem Finch, Ethan Haberfield is Scout's special friend, Dill. Note that Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is semi-autobiographical. Her real life special friend in Monroeville, Alabama, for example, was Truman Capote. Her father was a lawyer, and did defend two black men who were tried and hung. She also had a brother four years her senior.

The principal villain is Conan McCarty as Bob Ewell. His tragic daughter, Mayella Ewell is in the very capable hands of Alexis Hyatt.

This story of a man who risks his own and his family's safety to do the right thing in the face of the racism of his fellow townspeople is, sadly as relevant today as when Harper Lee first put pen to paper. This is a theatrical presentation, far beyond pure entertainment, that is credited with having life changing effects on countless readers and viewers. See it...bring the teenagers, yes, the "N" word is used several times, but, the story would be emasculated without it. Congratulations to director Joseph Discher, Brent Harris, Bonnie J. Monte and all those involved in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Here are the remaining cast members:

Jake Berger as Boo Radley,  Marjorie Johnson as Calpurnia, Maureen Silliman as Miss Maudie Atkinson, James Michael Reilly as Heck Tate,  Don Meehan as Nathan Radley, Eric Rolland as Mr. Gilmer, Jean Burton Walker as Mrs. Dubose, Ray Fisher as Tom Robinson, Ben Sterling as the court clerk, Chase Newhart as Judge Taylor, Eileen Glenn as Miss Stephanie Crawford, Allan R. Walker as Reverend Sykes, Rocio Alexis Mendez as Helen Robinson.

The artistic staff:

Set designer Anita Tripathi Easterling; lighting designer Matthew Adelson; costume designer Maggie Dick, sound designer Steven L. Beckel and fight director Rick SordeletAmanda Michaels is the production stage manager. 

For tickets or for more information, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre is located at 36 Madison Avenue (at Lancaster Road), in Madison, New Jersey.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio    October 15, 2011

Special Event

In conjunction with the Theatre’s production, Academy Award-nominated actress Mary Badham who played Scout opposite Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most poignant films in cinematic history, will appear at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on Monday, November 7 and Tuesday, November 8 at 7:30 p.m.  In Looking Back with Scout: A Conversation with Mary Badham, the actress will recall her memories on the set of the 1962 blockbuster film and discuss the book’s themes of tolerance, justice, and compassion.  Each evening will feature an extensive question-and-answer session with the audience.

Over the years following the release of the film, Badham maintained close contact with Gregory Peck and occasionally accompanied him on his one-man-show lecture tours and to award ceremonies. 
  Besides To Kill A Mockingbird, Badham is also known for her role as Sport Sharewood in The Bewitchin' Pool, the final episode of the original Twilight Zone series. She also appeared in the films  Let's Kill Uncle and This Property Is Condemned with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood before retiring as an actress. In 2005, she was brought out of retirement to appear in the film Our Very Own with Allison Janney, Keith Carradine, and Jason Ritter and directed by Shakespeare Theatre company member Cameron Watson.  Looking Back with Scout: A Conversation with Mary Badham is sponsored, in part, by the Morristown law firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter. 

Tickets to the event are $40 and $50 and can be purchased by calling The Shakespeare Theatre box office at 973-408-5600 or visiting   The event will take place at The Shakespeare Theatre’s F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. in Madison. 

 Also, for each production, The Shakespeare Theatre presents the popular education program Know the Show. From 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., an artist from The Shakespeare Theatre will present a pre-performance talk that provides background information and an insider’s perspective onthe production.  Know the Show will be held on October 20th at 7:00 p.m.  General admission is $5 for the general public, $4 for ticket package holders. Tickets to that evening’s 8:00 p.m. performance may be purchased separately.
The Trial of Tom Robinson

Frankie Seratch, Ethan Haberfield and Emmanuelle Nadeau
Photos ©Gerry Goodstein

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