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Almost anyone with a high school diploma has memories of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been a favorite since it was published in 1960. Google the title, and more than a million hits appear offering everything from prepackaged lesson plans to papers for cribbing to message boards full of praise from children and adults alike. The book was even named the "best novel of the century" by a 1999 Library Journal poll -- that's an awful lot of love for a relatively modest tale about a little white girl who lives in Maycomb, Alabama during the Jim Crow days of 1935. Even people who haven't read the novel might have seen the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer at the center of the story who was, by the way, named the "Greatest Hero of American Film" by the American Film Institute. To be perfectly Southern about all the hoopla, goodness gracious, how much love can one little book take?
The Alley Theatre is presenting a rather austere production of this old warhorse. Adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, the play is a compressed version of the novel, which reads today like a soft summer rain -- warm, sweet, a bit tedious at times, but uplifting at the end nonetheless.
In the play, the story starts with a grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Andrea Maulella) narrating what went on back in 1935, when she was just a girl and full of fears and curiosities about her little country town. We also meet the young version of the narrator, who goes by her childhood nickname Scout (Jennifer Laporte), Scout's older brother Jem (Tommy Waas) and their odd little buddy Dill (Wesley Whitson).
There is an entire world of grown-ups, too: Atticus Finch (John Feltch), Scout's widowed father; Calpurnia (Alice M. Gatling), the much loved housekeeper; and Mrs. Dubose (Bettye Fitzpatrick), the horrible, racist neighbor next door. The adults float in and out of the children's lives, not quite understanding what's really going on in their youthful imaginations.
The kids are most interested in the dilapidated mansion down the street, where Boo Radley (Chris Hutchison) lives. They are forever wondering what goes on behind those dark drapes; Boo Radley has not been seen for years, adding to his mystery. But in the tree nearby, the kids find an odd assortment of treasures -- soap figurines, a broken watch, shiny coins -- all left, it seems, just for them. They know there must be some sort of connection between the dark house and these gifts, but none will be so brave as to touch the ramshackle place unless dared to by the others.
While the children worry about their scary neighbor, the grown-ups worry about a trial happening in town. A black man named Tom Robinson (David Rainey) has been accused of the ultimate Jim Crow crime, raping a white woman. Atticus agrees to defend the man, even though it might make him a target himself.
Act II follows these two worlds until they collide in perfect form, as all well-made tales should. Some might find a comfortable predictability in this old time tale-telling, but the Alley Theatre, which usually does such a good job surprising audiences, does an awful lot of resting on the story's laurels with this production.
This show brings nothing new to the story. Bill Clarke's uninspired setting consists of two white-railed porches jutting out of either side of the stage, with the Radley house in the middle, all done up in standard gothic images, worn shutters, sunbaked siding and dark windows. A large tree stands close to center stage, but its leaves never move, never rustle with so much as a whiff of a summer breeze. Like many moments in the production, it looks like something caught in time. Paul Barnes's direction sends the actors in literal circles as they walk around the stage talking quietly with each other. And there is too much narration. In fact, it's hard to understand why the narrator is included at all. The whole story would feel much less static if it were always moving forward, rather than spending so much time in quiet recollection.
For all the show's faults, many of the performers do as well as can be expected. Three of the main characters are children, and they are all appealing. Especially charming is Whitson's Dill. Based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote, Dill is a terrific eccentric, and Whitson and his Alabama accent feel utterly true. Feltch is handsomely heroic as Atticus. And Rainey makes a moving victim as Tom Robinson.
Nostalgia, for all its sweetness, is not much to pin a play on. And though Lee's novel is still capable of making youngsters think, it would be nice to believe that most American adults have grown up to realize that racism is more complex and much more insidious than anything imagined in Lee's tender tale.