‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ still thrills

Repertory Theatre takes on Lee classic

A simplistic set welcomes the audience at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis with a tree, knocked over bench and dilapidated tire swing. Traveling across the back of the stage is a wall that would seem at home within the pages of “Country Living,” fading painted wood and decorative metal stars. Slowly sweeping the stage are the voices of composer and music director Michael Keck and cast members of the “Community”. The constant low hum and rhythmic words “shine on me” set the stage for hope and struggle. Jean Louise Finch (played by Lenne Klingaman) starts the reminiscent peregrination through a summer of her childhood in Maycomb, Alabama, 1935 in an adaptation of Harper Lee’s perennial novel: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Thanks to the work and exactitude of director Risa Brainin and actress Klingaman, this was the first time a narrator staying on stage actually added to the show instead of taking away from it. Klingaman holds a unique ability to stay focused and attentive to the scene without being obtrusive. It is as if she is truly learning from her past experiences as she unravels her story. Child actors Kaylee Ryan (Scout), Ronan Ryan (Jem) and Charlie Mathis (Dill) bear the brunt of the task of both amusing the audience and realistically living their lives.

Scout and Jem’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch (played by Jonathan Gillard Daly) enters and departs from their daily adventures to offer words of advice and to serve as moral compass. Otherwise the children are free to wander, wreak havoc and explore the world unabated. Atticus becomes burdened with the task of defending Tom Robinson (played by Terrell Donnell Sledge), a black man accused of assaulting and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (played by Rachel Fenton).

One is apt to get caught up in a story dealing with themes of racism in the Depression-era South. Watching Sledge’s ability to hold his reserve while the complications of his plight unravel about his feet makes one awestruck. The community of singers’ articulation of steady ongoing pain and suffering is a constant reminder of the binding constraints of the black experience. When a lynch rope is tossed over a tree limb, horror penetrates the laughs of the mob members. What was once an ordered and civilized society becomes ragged and marred. However, this is not the core of the story; it is the children.

The children are in a fragile state of their development while their neighbors turn ghastly. They query their elders to attempt to ascertain why people they know hold the attitudes they do. Atticus gives most of the answers, however they feel incomplete. When questioned why he took the defense case, he answers, “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to hold my head up high in this town.” He later offers, “There’s one thing that doesn’t apply to majority rule – that’s conscience.” The adults try to explain away their behavior, but the answer, “when you’re older…” isn’t fitting to a question such as, “What’s rape?” Perhaps the true story is that society needs to grow, not the children. If we hold prejudices that cannot be imparted verbally to children, maybe we should strike them from our minds.

The play calls the adult audience to determine what, exactly, we want to impart on our children. Do we want to perpetuate a society built on degrading and violent “isms” and “phobias”? Or do we want to build and cultivate our children to live with love, honor and morality? The darkest moment of the play is when Atticus states that “In a court, all men are created equal,” because it simply has not been held true. A St. Louisan can look to the statue of Dred and Harriet Scott outside of the old courthouse to remember that freedom is for those who hold power.

Jean Louise, the narrator, views the events as a telegraph from her childhood to her adult self. The message is clear: Do not let a collective perception dictate and sway your individual actions. Furthermore, you may have to follow the law, but there is nothing that says you have to respect it. This is the impetus for change. This is how all will become equal.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” runs Feb. 8 through March 5 at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts.

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