A.D. Players has started off its 50th season (!) with a tremendous double whammy. First and foremost, the venerable company, formed as After Dinner Players in the '60s, has finally relocated from its musty digs on West Alabama, its home for decades, to a state-of-the-art theater complex on Westheimer, mere blocks west of the Galleria. You can still smell the drying paint. Second, its premiere production, Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, is fitting tribute to the company's moral compass through the years. The book's plea for decency, tolerance, honor and justice while depicting the basest of human actions is an uplifting lesson for us all.
The theater: What a spectacular venue! The company's prayers were answered after years of fund-raising, and the Jeannette and L.M. George Theater – the first phase of the project to be completed – is an absolute stunner. Cream brick limestone, blond wood, industrial cruise ship staircases, lobby space to rival the Wortham's, a tony coffee bar, a sweeping panoramic two-story (or is it three?) glass overlook onto Westheimer, plush blue seats and unobstructed views in the auditorium, a stage with fly loft and orchestra pit, and backstage space enough for the imagination. A.D. Players has waited patiently for many years to realize this dream, and here it is at last. It's an Equity theater, too, which immediately moves the company into the pay-scale echelon of the Alley, Main Street and Ensemble. The George is the latest in Houston theater's enlarging scope and influence. Congratulations, and God speed.
In Sergel's adaptation of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winner, neighbor Maudie narrates, which lessens the impact, as both book and classic movie versions use pre-adolescent Scout as moral compass and all-seeing eye. A kid's-eye view suits this material since innocence and its burgeoning loss play such a major part. The many themes – all in capital letters and boldface – resonate with greater depth and emotion when filtered through a child's perspective. Scout doesn't understand what's going on, why certain neighbors act so peculiarly, why her schoolmates suddenly call her names and malign her father. Maudie's adult voice of reason and empathy dilutes the very world Lee details with such natural, autumnal nostalgia. Kids see things differently, and their awareness of good and evil and how to deal with both is an essential part of growing up, of becoming whole.
Of course, when portrayed by Jemma Kosanke (so powerfully creepy as the Victorian virtual reality avatar in Alley's The Nether), Scout naturally worms her way to the front and right into our heart. She is matched every tomboy step by Jackson Doran, as somewhat wiser, older brother Jem. Doran is a natural and he can throw a football with the accuracy of Brady. (Is young Jackson the son of Houston's exceptional actor/director Justin Doran, and brother of actor Ty Doran? If so, there's a dynasty brewing, a Houston branch, like the Barrymores and the Booths.) And skinny, strange Dill, apparently based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote, is sensitively, and comically, portrayed by McKay Lawless, so sensational as Helen in A.D.'s Miracle Worker a few seasons ago.
Director Kevin Dean firmly leads the astute ensemble through Sergel's memory play: Christie Watkins, sensible Maudie; Callina Situka, stern, forgiving Calpurnia; Patty Tuel Bailey, busybody Stephanie; Jeff McMorrough, misunderstood Boo – who gets the best entrance in months, something James Whale would have given the creature in some Universal horror movie; Ric Hodgin, good-old-boy town sheriff Heck; Shanae'a Moore, abused Mayella; Craig Griffin, very bad old boy Bob Ewell; Chip Simmons, prosecuting attorney Gilmore; Andrew Carson, decent Tom Robinson, accused of rape by Mayella.
While it's not a major misstep, though it might have been, Jason Douglas, as noble Atticus, doesn't seem comfortable in this iconic role. He's so stentorian and cold, the anti-Gregory Peck. He's like an alien dropped into rural Alabama; not of their world. Because Lee swathes this character in such goodness, nobility and purity, he might as well sport a halo, so Douglas's aloofness isn't quite as harmful to the overall effect as it could be. He's just miscast. (For a different, racially insensitive Atticus, read Lee's To Set a Watchman, which languished in a bank vault for decades until dusted off and published in 2015, but was later confirmed to be an early draft for Mockingbird. On second thought, don't read this early work. You'll never forgive Lee.)
Andrew Vance's pastel lighting catches the nuances of a '30s small Southern town. Watch how sunset imperceptibly washes over Scout and Atticus's embrace on the front porch. See how the courtroom darkens just in time for Tom's dramatic testimony. Notice how the cars approach Atticus at the jailhouse, their headlamps pinning him against the wall.
We applaud our newest theater in Houston, which is also one of our oldest. May the company bloom in its radiant and fresh home. Mockingbird at the George is the beginning of a beautiful, renewed friendship.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues at.7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and February 18; 2 and 7:30 p.m. February 25 and March 4, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through March 5. A.D. Players, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $19 to $68.