This `Mockingbird' loses its bite

Review: As a play at Ford's Theatre, `To Kill a Mockingbird' is just too cute for words.

October 10, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is part civil rights saga, part children's coming-of-age story, part courtroom drama and part suspense tale. The 1962 movie version, with its Academy Award-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, beautifully balanced all these elements.

But Christopher Sergel's 90-minute stage adaptation barely breaks the surface, and Timothy Childs' front-and-center direction makes the courtroom speeches feel more like soapbox declarations than impassioned entreaties to judge and jury.

Like the book and movie, the play is narrated by the grown-up Scout, daughter of defense attorney Atticus Finch. At Ford's, this narrator (Giulia Paolo) is an on-stage presence, dressed in modern clothing and beginning her account with the words, "In 1935, I turned 9 years old."

FOR THE RECORD - A review of the play To Kill a Mockingbird in Wednesday's Today section incorrectly characterized the narrator of the Harper Lee book on which the play is based. Lee's narrator is the young Scout Finch, not the adult Scout.
The Sun regrets the error.

Paolo oversees the proceedings with a warm, maternal air that characterizes much of the production, which is rarely as dangerous or frightening as it should be.

An innocent black man's life is at stake - Tom Robinson, who is wrongly accused of raping a white girl by the girl's bigoted, bullying father. Today this would be an example of "racial profiling," one of the blots on our justice system.

What happens to Tom (played with gentle grace by David Aron Damane) is nothing short of a horror story. But Ford's production comes across more like an innocuous essay by Scout that could be titled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation."

Part of the problem is that the children - Rita Glynn as 9-year-old Scout, Gregory Droggitis as her older brother and Connor Paolo as their friend (whom Lee modeled after her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) - are defined more by cuteness than precocious intelligence. The emphasis the production places on adorability would be better placed on wisdom.

But then, this production is largely content with one-dimensional characters, whether of Tom's villainous, racist accuser (Paul Morris) or Timmy Ray James' strutting, self-satisfied prosecuting attorney.

The chief exception is Robert Emmet Lunney's more multifaceted Atticus. A decent man all too aware of his own shortcomings, he is realistic enough to recognize that his noble battle is a lost cause, but brave enough to take it on anyway. (That's Atticus' definition of courage, and the play's main lesson.)

Oddly enough, one of the production's most menacing elements is Douglas Huszti's small-town set design, which looks rather cozy and inviting until you realize that all the trees and leaves are painted black and gray. Another effective touch is the use of a black gospel quartet that serves as a kind of Greek chorus, reappearing at various points throughout the play.

A drama that helps instruct children about a reprehensible chapter in the struggle for civil rights is an apropos choice for historic Ford's Theatre. But toning it down is a mistake. Children can face ugly truths - and learn from their negative example - even more openly now than they could when Lee's novel was new.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, racism leads to the false conviction and death of an innocent man, but at the end of Ford's production everything seems just fine in the fictitious small town of Maycomb, Ala. Surely that is not what Harper Lee had in mind.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 1 p.m. most Thursdays and Nov. 7 and 14, 2:30 Sundays and most Saturdays, through Nov. 18

Tickets: $27-$43

Call: 202-347-4833

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