Thursday, June 28, 2018

Odd One Out: To Kill a Mockingbird at Stratford

Matthew G. Brown as Tom Robinson in Stratford's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: David Hou)

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel about racial intolerance in the American South, is now a play at Canada’s Stratford Festival where so much of what is on the written page comes vividly to life. In this, Nigel Shawn Williams’s direction of Christopher Sergel’s 1970 stage adaptation, children play most of the central roles, and they are sensational. Chief among them is Clara Poppy Kushnir, the young girl who plays Scout.

This memorable six-year-old character, familiar to us from required middle school readings of the book, is Lee’s alter ego in the novel. From a child’s straightforward perspective, Scout recounts events in her fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama, including the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man. Her older brother Jem, meanwhile, wonders aloud why his father, the town lawyer defending the black man in question, isn’t like other dads and not just because he takes the moral high ground. He won’t play sports and he downplays his proficiency with a gun. At Stratford, Jem is played with mounting grit and maturity by Jacob Skiba, who easily forms a sympathetic relationship with his onstage sister.

Infiltrating their tight community is Dill, played by Hunter Smalley, a precocious boy who finds refuge among the siblings, largely because, despite his oddness, they tolerate and befriend him, as they have been taught by their wise patriarch, Atticus Finch. As played by seasoned Stratford actor, Jonathan Goad, who endows him with layers of understated depth, Atticus leads by example. He asks of his children just one thing, to live for a spell in another person’s skin to understand why they think, feel and do the things they do. “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he says, applying the dictum even to members of the Ku Klux Klan who would lynch a man wrongly accused of a crime and all because of the colour of his skin. The white-cloaked avengers include the vicious Bob Ewell (superbly portrayed played by Randy Hughson), whose sad white-trash daughter, Mayella (Jonelle Gunderson), goes to great lengths to hide the fact that she tried to kiss a black man, an act forbidden by the social codes of her day. The reclusive Boo Radley (Rylan Wilkie) delivers the play’s ultimate act of poetic justice.

At Stratford, Tom Robinson, the Negro in the wrong place at the wrong time, damned before he even goes to trial, is powerfully portrayed by Matthew G. Brown, who lends him the quiet dignity Atticus Finch would want his bigoted townsfolk to see. But they can’t. Racial prejudice has blinded them to what is right. They can’t live in a black man’s skin, nor would they want to. It’s a sad and irrevocable fact of life in the South at that time, in the decades immediately preceding the civil rights movement. A young person absorbing this hard lesson for the first time comes to understand that the adult world is morally more compromised than children are taught to believe. Good and bad are not objective truths. They are subject to personal interpretation. This ethical dilemma, cloaked in the silken threads of great storytelling, is likely why To Kill a Mockingbird remains a school curriculum staple. Not only is this classic of modern literature sensitively written, but it is subtle in its communication of what constitutes – or ought to constitute – what is fair and unfair in life. The little girl narrator of the novel makes accessible the moral pondering running through Lee’s tender story of tolerance and acceptance like a steady flowing river. She is never preachy. Like her father, she leads by example.

Members of the company with Jonathan Goad, centre, as Atticus Finch. (Photo: David Hou) 

This is such an obvious component of the book, a reason it continues to be read nearly 60 years after its creation, that it boggles the mind why a stage version would subvert Lee’s winning formula with a pushy, in-your-face commentator inserted smack-dab in the middle of the drama. Talk about a wrong that can never be made right. This new narrator is Scout as a grown woman. She looks back on the events her younger self originally relayed in golden detail, retelling them in such a way as to sabotage what was deeply engaging in her story.

Melodramatically played by Irene Poole, Jean Louise Finch, to call her by her birth name and not her childhood nickname, is a nuisance and a pain, often interrupting the dramatic flow with some heavy-handed commentary about what is going on. She then ventures deeper into dangerous territory by telling the audience what it needs to be taking in as truly important. It’s hard now to list all the annoying instances because your impulse when she pushes herself on you is to shut her out, ignore her as best you can so as to continue enjoying what otherwise is a pitch-perfect production. But one overbearing moment stands out. When Atticus is describing Tom Patterson as a fellow human being, she actually talks over him, emphasizing the words “human being” in case we in the house are too dumb to get it. Her presence feels grossly misplaced especially in a play exploring the idea of what it means to mind your place. 

Emphasizing her awkwardness within the fabric of the play is her mode of dress, consisting of fitted blue jeans and a draggy-looking cheap-quality shirt that looks as if purchased at a Winners off-season sale. Her costume, neither site nor time specific, makes her look like a stage hand who has wandered into the play. Denyse Karn oversaw the design, and everywhere else she is spot-on with authentic-looking 1930s-era clothing. But what she devised for the narrator feels like a mistake. You keep wondering who this older Scout really is; where does she come from and why does she feel it necessary to tell us what is happening on stage?

If she is from the late 1960s, as stated in the program notes, you can’t tell from her clothes, hair and diction. Her overly self-righteous demeanour makes her seem more a product of today. While watching the play, set during the Depression, you are doing the mental math — trying to figure out her age and what is motivating her. And this is partly because the play opens with a montage of historical documentary images and sound bites, from Depression-era lynchings to civil rights protests and television coverage of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968. “I still have a dream,” the late civil rights activist can be heard in a voice-over accompanying projected images of him lying bleeding on the Lorrain Motel balcony floor, “ . . . that all men are created equal.” It’s a noble goal. And great strides have since been taken to realize racial equality in our times. But Martin Luther King Jr. is not Harper Lee just as this ersatz Scout is not the one we all have come to know and love from the novel. This is an instance where taking liberties has produced a dead end, which is ironic given the subject matter.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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