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At Sierra Madre Playhouse: A Kinder, Gentler “Mockingbird”?

The more you know about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that great classic book of the 1960s, the more fascinating this classic becomes. Today the tale proves controversial for its childish tone, and for, as Slate writer Stephen Metcalf says, it’s white lawyer protagonist’s “preposterously unblinking courtesy” which may be seen as having “served to counsel gradualism and procedural nicety, even as the Civil Rights movement had started demanding something more.” Still, the book is taught in ¾ of America’s schools, and the film and play adaptations have reached wide followings. Some consider it the most popular American novel. Nostalgia, even politically charged nostalgia, sells.

Not surprising, then, that the venerable Sierra Madre Playhouse should choose to produce one of the better of those adaptations, by Christopher Sergel. Perhaps anticipating the vast popularity of the piece, they’ve also gone all out in production values. Still, the process of putting such a large story on such a small stage does lead to some interesting choices. Director Michael Cooper makes some of them work well, while others prove overly revisionist – a softening even of the soft-focus lens this story has always placed on institutional racism.

Most reading this can virtually recite the storyline. As seen mostly through the eyes of Scout, a roughly 8-year-old tomboy, we watch the vibrations through tiny Maycomb, Alabama as a poor black family man is arrested and tried for the rape of an even poorer white girl. That he is innocent is a given. That, despite the efforts of his idealistically pacific white lawyer, Scout’s father Atticus, he will be convicted is also a given. What becomes central is Atticus’ almost innocent refusal to acknowledge the ill will of others – a belief that almost costs his children’s lives.

Director Cooper has chosen to emphasize the calm quality of Atticus to the point where the entire enterprise operates at a slow, underplayed hum. This proves effective when the nasty and vindictive bully Bob Ewell (an enthusiastically villainous David Preston) sparks with a vicious energy against the placid whole. Yet, at other times the calmness, even of young children supposedly scared of boogey men, is like looking at the story through cheesecloth.

Brighid Fleming, as Scout, and Michael Andrew Stock as her older brother Jem, play their parts as calm little adults, which works, but only sometimes. Indeed, though Christian Lebano’s gentle Atticus and Tara Thomas’ lovingly commanding housekeeper, Calpurnia, often order them to do things like go inside, something which you would think would at least evoke a reaction (perhaps an occasional start toward compliance, even), such orders aren’t acknowledged in any way. In a child this would be overt and obstinate “attitude” – something which one does not usually associate with Scout or Jem.

This show sports a huge cast – perhaps the largest in a non-musical I’ve ever seen at SMP. Diane Kelber gives the narrator, their neighbor Maudie, warmth and open-mindedness. Alex Egan makes the sheriff wisely long-suffering. Robert Manning, Jr. gives the accused man, Tom, a meek nobility, while, as his accuser, Lindsay Wagner’s frightened, dumpy young woman underscores the villainy of the entire proceeding. As the odd boy Dill, who befriends Scout and Jem (a character based on Harper Lee’s real life-long association with Truman Capote), Patrick Fitzsimmons is certainly odd. The rest of the cast also does admirably at creating the town in small, though one is somewhat startled at the sympathetic turn Miguel Perez gives the usually partisan judge.

The set, by top-notch designer Gary Wissmann, crams a huge amount onto the tiny SMP stage, usually to fine effect, though the isolated nature of Boo Radley’s house is difficult to define. Carlos Brown has captured the look of 1935 southern clothing, and the social stratification of the time. It all looks very period.

In sum, please don’t get me wrong. I am very fond of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its criticisms notwithstanding. Yet, when – in that most seminal moment – the African-American reverend (well played by Marvin Gay) asks Scout and Jem to stand along with the rest of the “colored” gallery as their father walks by, and all the whites in the court stand too, the kinder, gentler, diluted version of racist 1930s Alabama is almost too much to bear. I’m sorry. It just wasn’t like that.

What: “To Kill a Mockingbird” When: Through November 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 students/seniors, $15 children 12 and under Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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