Review: “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Indiana Repertory Theater

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By Zach Dunkin

In the game of football the best way to see a pass play develop is to look away from the quarterback with the ball and observe the trenches where linemen and linebackers use their strength and speed to break through the offensive protection and watch the intended receivers run their routes to get open as the defensive backs try their best to prevent that from happening.

Now, take that same approach in watching Indiana Repertory Theater’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” running through Feb. 28. (After all, it is Super Bowl Week). In Act 2, in which the case against a black man accused of beating and raping a white woman is heard, take your eyes off the play’s “Peyton Manning,” i.e., defense attorney Atticus Finch, and let them wander to the house left where a belligerent Bob Ewell, the father of the victim, squirms uncomfortably as the accused Tom Robinson describes the scene of the crime, the Ewells’ home. Robinson’s recollection is contrary to that of the accused, Mayella Ewell who slumps in guilt and shame next to her father, knowing that Robinson’s account is the more accurate description.

Now, look at the table in front of the Ewells, as the prosecuting attorney Walter Cunningham, fidgets with his No. 2 lead pencil and displays an arsenal of facial distortions as he hears Robinson’s convincing story. Next, elevate your eyelevel to the “colored folks” gallery, where young Scout Finch, her brother Jem and their friend Dill, intently hang wide-eyed on every word of testimony. Change your line of sight down stage, house right beyond the courtroom scene, to watch Jean Louise Finch, the adult Scout who acts as the play’s narrator. Her furrowed eyebrows indicate displeasure, anger and worry about what she is observing.

Finally, look around you, to your left and right, behind you, and the balcony. The audience, which Atticus is addressing as the jury, is spellbound by the scene. Of course, we have no say in the outcome; we surely would have let the victim off the hook. But we know the story doesn’t end that way. Though Atticus forced the jury into a lengthy discussion, it – spoiler alert – comes back with a guilty verdict.

That’s just a snapshot of this must-see production of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel come to life under the direction of IRT executive director Janet Allen. Allen was inspired to “jump on the bandwagon,” as she described it, after Lee was back in the spotlight last summer following the release of her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” depicting an older Scout and Atticus. She said witnessing the viewpoint of an adult Jean Louise in “Watchman” was the catalyst in selecting this particular stage production of “Mockingbird.”

Set in 1930s Alabama, Lee’s original novel published in 1960, focuses on tomboy Scout, joyously played by fifth-grader Paula Hopkins, her brother, Jem, played by eighth grader Grayson Molin, and their widower and attorney Atticus, skillfully portrayed by IRT regular Ryan Artzberger.

Hopkins and Molin, along with young Mitchell Wray as Dill, dominate Act 1 with childhood conversations that included the creepiness that is recluse Boo Radley. The scenes are laced with innocent kidspeak and humor. Kids do say the darndest things, don’t they?

The youths return in Act 2, first as sneaky observers to the trial, and later as victims of the ogreish Bob Ewell (IRT veteran Robert Neal), whose violent actions against the Finch kids lead to his – another spoiler alert – death at the hands of the inexplicable Boo Radley. Act 2 is dominated, however, by Artzberger’s convincing portrayal of Atticus.

Original music accompaniment by Tim Grimm (Heck Tate) and Christopher Walz (Boo Radley and Judge Taylor) weaves throughout the production by way of slide guitar, harmonica, banjo and mandolin. With hands stuffed in the pockets of her slacks just as young Scout frequently did in her bib overalls, Lauren Briggemen narrates the story at a comfortable pace.

Translating well to the stage, Lee’s iconic and controversial novel was banned in several corners because of its profanity, racial slurs and the frank discussion of rape.  Yes, it was odd to hear the “N-word” used so freely on today’s stage. Yet, that’s how Lee wrote it, and, thankfully, we have progressed enough that hearing the word makes us ashamed and uncomfortable.

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