To Kill a Mockingbird has quietly become a universal American experience. Whether it’s read in school or viewed as a classic film, almost all of us have known – and in many ways, that word doesn’t need quotation marks around it – Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem, and their buddy Dill.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opened the stage adaptation of it as part of their 50th anniversary season. It was particularly appropriate, as artistic director Steven Woolf pointed out, in the aftermath of the area’s racial upheaval and its shock waves. Director Risa Brainin has given us a vision of Maycomb, Alabama, that’s more dreamlike and less gritty than some. Nevertheless, the power is unmistakable.
The strong cast is headed up by Jonathan Gillard Daly’s Atticus Finch, attorney and father. Daly mixes warmth and strength in the iconic character. His daughter Jean Louise is played by Lenne Klingaman as the adult, who narrates the story. Her younger self, answering to the nickname Scout, is Kaylee Ryan. Her brother Jem is Kaylee Ryan’s twin brother Ronan Ryan, and their summer sidekick Dill (who in real life was the young Truman Capote) is Charlie Mathis.
These kids are the core of the play, and they carry it well. Kaylee, in particular, gives a spectacular performance, feisty and curious and forthright. Ronan Ryan shows a strong older brother, and Charlie Mathis’ Dill has some great dialogue that he carries off with delightful poise. On opening night, there was a little swallowing of lines from both the young gentlemen, but that disappeared as the evening progressed.
It’s a big cast, with a number of familiar local faces. Pay particular attention to Rachel Fenton as Mayella Ewell, who’s the accuser of Atticus’ client, Tom Robinson. What she reveals when she’s not speaking is almost as interesting as her lines. Kudos also to Tanesha Gary, the Finches’ housekeeper Calpurnia, a strong figure in this motherless home.
Director Brainin has added another level of interest with original choral music from Michael Keck, who also plays Reverend Sykes. Mostly, the music is a positive addition, but at times it seemed hard to tell how much of a focus the music was intended to be. Its style is modern with numerous homages to traditional gospel, and the community – that’s the phrase the program uses for the chorus, who also serves as the observers from the balcony in the courthouse, when “coloreds” had to be seated in separate areas from white persons – sounds lovely.
That brings us to the set from Narelle Sissons. It’s imaginative – one character, who’s a housebound invalid, arrives with her own window, for instance – and adds to the feeling of memory rather than reproduction. The courthouse balcony is pretty remarkable. Then there’s the tree. The tree dominates the set and seems one of those love-it-or-hate-it pieces. It looked to me like a tree that’s been hacked on for decades, with the resulting odd branches, reminding of the small-town street where I grew up.
I find myself again and again wanting to use the word “strong” when I think about what the Rep is doing with Mockingbird. It’s moving, extremely well executed, and a perfect fit for almost any audience.
To Kill a Mockingbird
through March 5
Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves