There are many, many problems involved in doing a stage version of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Not the least of these is the need to find three very good child actors to play three substantial roles in this grown-up show: Scout, the protagonist of the famous tale; Jem, her brother; and Dill, Scout’s foppish sidekick.
Director Stanley Coleman has done all this and more for the production of “Mockingbird” that runs through January 30 at Eugene’s Very Little Theatre.
His Scout is 11-year-old Noa Ablow Measelle, a sixth grader at Roosevelt Middle School who has worked in the past with Actors Cabaret, Rose Children’s Theatre and Upstart Crow. Measelle has her finger on the very pulse of Scout’s life, from her scrappy, no-nonsense attitude toward the world to her tweenish frustration with her remote but respected father.
Hazel Van Ummersen gives us a delightfully metrosexual Dill – the character in Lee’s novel is based on her real life friend Truman Capote – and Cody Masterson is rock solid as Jem.
There are more problems to be solved, of course. There is no way to put on this show without fighting off the ghost of Gregory Peck, who did such a compelling and Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, in the 1962 film of the novel that no one can ever quite get him out of mind. (The American Film Institute once called Peck’s Atticus the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.)
Fortunately for the VLT production, Scott Frazier Maskiell doesn’t quite try to be Gregory Peck. He is quieter, less heroic, and more believable as the small town lawyer called in to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1935 Alabama.
At first that threw me off – getting Peck out of mind is (did I mention?) impossible – but Maskiell’s lower-key performance grew on me over the course of the two and a half hour play, which went by in a heartbeat.
The stage at VLT is small, and Sarah Etherton’s scenic design managed to cram a lot of locales into a functional set that lacks much look of the rural south.
There are lots of good performances here among the Shakespeare-sized cast. Just to mention a few: I loved Daniel Henry as the loutish Bob Ewell, who forces his daughter Mayella (Nicole Trobaugh) to swear she was raped by Tom Robinson. Darius Bunce was sweet and solid as Robinson, and, in a very small part, Damon Noyes was just right as the reclusive Boo Radley. Finally, Rebecca Chamberlain was excellent as the grown-up Scout, who narrates much of the story.
The play, adapted from the novel by Christopher Sergel, has an interesting performance history. It’s been done each year since its 1990 premiere in Monroeville, Alabama. At the show, the jury for the trial, which comprises the second act, is chosen from audience members, and in the second act the audience is asked to sit segregated by race.
And that brings up the big question: How do you perform “Mockingbird,” with its sweet and rather pat ending, in our supposedly post-racial, Ferguson-charged America? I think the only answer is, you just do – which is exactly what VLT has done. Do see this show. It’s worth it.