The set up: Remarkable stagecraft, consummate acting, and skilled direction blend together to create a memorable production of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Pasadena Little Theatre. The ambiance of a small, sleepy Southern town is effectively created in its introductory first act, while the drama of a black man on trial in white man's territory is brought to vivid life in its explosive second act. The story may be familiar to those who read 1960's Pulitzer Prize, best-selling novel by Harper Lee, or saw the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, winner of three Academy Awards, including best screenplay by Horton Foote.
The execution: The acting is of the first order - Wes Linnenbank as Atticus Finch creates a nuanced portrait of an intelligent, caring and dedicated man, both as attorney and as a father. The other three central characters are his young daughter Scout (Elizabeth Tyska), his young son Jem (Anthony Martino), and a visiting child named Dill (Lorenz Nicholas Lopez) - all are excellent and each finds an authentic portrayal - this is crucial since the first act revolves around them. The villain of the play is the abusive, alcoholic Bob Ewell, played powerfully and convincingly in an electric performance by Gregory R. Brown. Luci Galloway captures beautifully the challenging role of his teen-age daughter, trapped in a web of deceit. In minor roles, Sue Beth Fry has great comic timing as a neighbor with a judgmental streak, Renee Van Nifterik portrays Atticus's housekeeeper with style and charm and Mark Stanley captures the gruff exterior and warmer heart of a Southern sheriff.
Others stood out in the cast of 20: Isaiah DeJohnette as the accused, Fulton Fry as Judge Taylor and Mark C. Connelly as a poor farmhand. The direction is by Grace Galloway, assisted by Julie Owen, and is admirable. They have overcome to a large extent the flaws in the script. The play is an adaptation by Christopher Sergel of the acclaimed novel, and its slavish adherence works against the inherent strengths of the stage. Having a mature representation of Atticus's daughter serve as narrator interrupts the flow of drama, the brief shift from the trial to show the children's reactions breaks the courtroom suspense, and the long epilogue blunts the arc of the narrative. Sergel should have been less of an acolyte, and more of an editor, yet he has served us well by bringing the work to the stage.
The verdict: The fine acting and direction, helped by Joel Rodriguez's inspired set that made the audience part of the jury, overcame all obstacles to generate a triumphant, moving and most-satisfying evening, making this production one not to be missed. There's nothing "little" about this theatre. Through July 3, Pasadena Little Theatre, 4318 Allen Genoa Rd., Pasadena, 713-042-1758.