By Paul Love
One of the most highly recognized and award-winning American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is a fictionalized version of a real-life story involving a black man, Tom Robinson, being falsely accused of raping and beating a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in Alabama during the Great Depression. The story is told through the eyes of Scout, a young girl whose father, Atticus Finch, is the lawyer tasked with defending Tom. With an all-white jury and a town filled with unrest and deeply rooted racism, Atticus’s task is challenging to say the least. In 1990, Christopher Sergel wrote the theatrical adaptation of Lee’s novel that is currently being produced by Stage Centre Productions.
Set designer Pascal Labillois and assistant set designer Reiko Takaie have created a wonderful set that instantly informs us of time and place. The front porch of the Finches’ home and those of their neighbours are fully realized with chairs and flower pots — and screen doors that make that marvelous creak-thunk sound that immediately makes one think of summer. The frame-only style of the homes allows us to see important moments inside, and it creates the sense of openness that is characteristic of small towns. The Radley home, by contrast, is appropriately dark, forbidding, and closed off to the townspeople as well as the audience.
Kudos to Jamie Farley for an effective lighting design that captures the warmth —literal and figurative — of Maycomb in the summer, but particularly for the choice to darken the stage on the angry mob that shows up at the jailhouse, effectively rendering them as faceless silhouettes — unidentifiable and all alike.
Credit must be given to director Lorraine Kimsa for keeping the action crisp and agile, even in the dialogue-heavy courtroom scenes. Set changes were brisk and orderly, and character movement always made sense throughout.
Atticus Finch is one of the most beloved, iconic, and heroic characters in American fiction. To give him the appropriate gravitas requires an actor with the skill to pull it off. Enter Will van der Zyl, who truly connects with his character, imbuing Atticus with a sense of confidence that tells the audience he can handle any situation from the moment he appears on stage. Our eyes are drawn to him, and we believe his every word. We also get a true sense of Atticus as a heartfelt, caring man in the moments where he attempts to comfort Scout, Jem, and Tom. Mr. van der Zyl gives a captivating, grounded performance befitting such an important character.
Astrid Atherley gives a warm and funny performance as Calpurnia, the Finches’ cook, who also watches over Scout and Jem when Atticus is at work. The scene where she gives Scout and Jem a talking-to as she marches them home from the courthouse leads to some of the best (and funniest) off-stage voice acting I’ve ever witnessed.
Playing Miss Maudie Atkinson is challenging; not only is she the Finches’ caring next-door neighbour and one of only a few of Maycomb’s citizens who is not racist, but she also acts as the play’s narrator. Cindy Platten handles all of this with aplomb, colouring her character’s scenes with warmth, morality, and accessibility, and bridging the show’s scenes with powerful, effecting narration done in a wonderfully smooth Southern drawl.
As the older Finch sibling, Jem, Fraser Schaffer does a great job of portraying his character’s eagerness and innocence, and handles Jem’s more physical moments like a pro.
The script and the novel will both tell you that this is, ultimately, Scout’s story. But in this production it is Daya Lenga’s incredible, confident, and committed performance that makes it so. Ms. Lenga gives us a Scout who is, appropriately, always in command of any situation she finds herself in. Ms. Lenga’s Scout is bold, funny, and sharp as a tack. It is not sufficed to say that this is an excellent performance for a young person. It is an excellent performance period. And to discover that Ms. Lenga is only twelve years old and this is her first play is mind-blowing to say the least. I hope it’s not her last.
Credit must also be given to the cast members who created some indelible scenes with characters that could easily be dismissed as minor — Scott Griffin as Maycomb’s sherrif, Heck Tate, struggling with his emotions as he tells Atticus about a tragic incident that has occurred; Chip Thompson spewing hate with his tongue and searing eyes as Bob Ewell, the father of the accused, when he takes the witness stand; Jason Pilgrim as the accused, Tom Robinson, desperately defending himself with a powerful portrayal of fear, confusion, and disillusionment; and Lindsay Woodford as the accuser, Mayella Ewell, in a harrowing and profoundly tragic moment in the courtroom.
I highly recommend catching Stage Centre Productions’ To Kill a Mockingbird before it closes. Performances are at the Fairview Library Theatre, 35 Fairview Mall Drive in Toronto, next to the Fairview Mall. Remaining performances are May 22, 23, 24, and 25 at 8 pm, with an additional matinee performance on May 25 at 2 pm. Tickets are available at the door, by calling (416) 299-5557, or by visiting the website.