Theater Review: TheatreWorks’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ elegant, touching

L-R, foreground Atticus Finch (Anthony Newfield) discusses the case with defendant Tom Robinson (Philipe D. Preston) in Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's timeless American classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at TheatreWorks. Background, L-R Dill (Gabriel Hoffman), Scout Finch (Sierra Stephens), Jem Finch (Eric Colvin), Reverend Sykes (L. Peter Callender), Helen Robinson (Tracy Camp) and a friend (Donell Hill). Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
In Review

To Kill a Mockingbird

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars - 'Right on the Money'
TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Directed by Robert Kelley
Starring Kevin Blackton, Anne Buelteman, L. Peter Callender, Nancy Carlin, Blythe Foster, Rod Gnapp, Gabriel Hoffman, Phoebe Moyer, Anthony Newfield, Cathleen Riddley, Sierra Stephens, Howard Swain, Michael Ray Wisely, Philipe D. Preston and Eric Colvin
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
www.theatreworks.org
Review by
To Kill a Mockingbird, TheatreWorks
L-R, foreground Atticus Finch (Anthony Newfield) discusses the case with defendant Tom Robinson (Philipe D. Preston) in Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's timeless American classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at TheatreWorks. Background, L-R Dill (Gabriel Hoffman), Scout Finch (Sierra Stephens), Jem Finch (Eric Colvin), Reverend Sykes (L. Peter Callender), Helen Robinson (Tracy Camp) and a friend (Donell Hill). Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

In the end hope prevails in TheatreWorks’ To Kill a Mockingbird. And despite a down South journey involving serious—and very relevant—issues including racism, rape, and justice, we’re left feeling inspired and convinced that humanity can triumph.

Yes, Harper Lee’s classic novel still packs emotional punch.

In fact, it serves as a striking reminder that although written fifty years ago, the material still resonates and opens our minds. Especially so, thanks to a beautifully elegant treatment by TheatreWorks and director Robert Kelley. This is must-see theater, and one of the best shows I’ve seen by TheatreWorks.

It’s 1935 in a small Alabama town. On the surface, exchanges are mostly cordial, despite the economic malaise. Underneath, however, an uneasy current of racial divide is brewing. Eventually violence ensues when “carnal knowledge of a female by force” transpires. It rocks the community and further intensifies anger.

By the second act, we’re ensconced in that most revered institution: The American legal system. Court room melodrama unfolds with one heart-wrenching scene after the next.

The “N” word is used pervasively throughout and accurately conveys an era that at times seems light years away, yet at others feels frighteningly close-by.

There is much to love about this production.

Atticus Finch (Anthony Newfield, standing right) gives his closing remarks in the case of Tom Robinson (Philipe D.  Preston, seated) in Christopher Sergel's adaptation of  Harper Lee's timeless American classic, TO KILL A  MOCKINGBIRD at TheatreWorks.  Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
Atticus Finch (Anthony Newfield, standing right) gives his closing remarks in the case of Tom Robinson (Philipe D. Preston, seated) in Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's timeless American classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at TheatreWorks. Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

The acting is outrageously good, across the board. This is an exceptional cast. And it all starts with the kids (Sierra Stephens, Gabriel Hoffman, Eric Colvin) who act beyond their years, with nary a hitch. Outstanding! Young actors are a wild card. But here they are simply on the mark. Sierra as linchpin character Scout establishes an inquisitive, free spirit, while dashing about town with her friends.

Anthony Newfield as Atticus Finch brings humble intelligence and keen likability to a role that anchors the story. His lanky frame, in a clean, well-pressed white suit captures the majesty of a proud man caught in the vortex of complicated social upheaval.

Howard Swain, who I last saw in the uproariously entertaining A Christmas Story at SJ Rep, brings a dash of aloofness as Judge Taylor in just the right proportion. His hair flying, trying to maintain order; it’s a manic and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Kevin Blackton as Mr. Gilmer and Nathan Redley does fine work too. He brings physical presence, but with a musical step that gives his movements quirky swagger, especially during the court room scenes.

Equally strong are Cathleen Riddley as Calpurnia whose sweet singing voice fills the theater on several occasions, and Philipe D. Preston, as a black man fighting for justice.

And I haven’t even mentioned Rod Gnapp, another of my favorite Bay Area actors. He seems to thrive playing misfit, slightly wacky characters (Goldfish and Ms. Whitney at Magic Theatre, Awake & Sing! at Aurora). In To Kill a Mockingbird he plays Bob Ewell, a simple farmer who sees the world in black and white. His disdain is kept just in check long enough to revel in a multi-layered performance. His daughter Mayella, played by Blythe Foster, has one of the best moments on the stand, confused, stammering, then sobbing out loud as she tries to make sense of her place in the world.

L-R Dill (Gabriel Hoffman) and Scout (Sierra Stephens) inspect a couple of pennies they found in the knothole of a  tree in Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's  timeless American classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD  at TheatreWorks.  Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
L-R Dill (Gabriel Hoffman) and Scout (Sierra Stephens) inspect a couple of pennies they found in the knothole of a tree in Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's timeless American classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at TheatreWorks. Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

The set, comprising of four small southern homes, is a feast for the eyes. We are instantly transformed back seventy-five years the moment we walk through the doors of the theater at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Detail is astonishing. Every leaf is painstakingly rendered. The lighting adds depth and richness. Sound is minimal resulting in a production that lets emotion connect raw with the audience. And when the effects do come, it’s with a bang that jolts us, much like the drama unfolding before our eyes.

I’m not sure if this was part of Christopher Sergel’s treatment, but using the audience as the jury was a great choice. It involves us, and allows the actors to create many two-way exchanges.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a story for the ages, and this treatment at TheatreWorks is a worthy and welcome addition to its legacy.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
4.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Robert Kelley
Starring Kevin Blackton, Anne Buelteman, L. Peter Callender, Nancy Carlin, Blythe Foster, Rod Gnapp, Gabriel Hoffman, Phoebe Moyer, Anthony Newfield, Cathleen Riddley, Sierra Stephens, Howard Swain, Michael Ray Wisely, Philipe D. Preston and Eric Colvin
www.theatreworks.org
Through May 9, 2010

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