Few films and novels have moved me as deeply as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. This hardly sets me apart. Since it was published in 1960, it has won The Pulitzer Prize, been translated into 40 languages and sold over 30 million copies. The film version was released in 1962 (with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch) to wide acclaim and appeal, it won three Academy Awards including one for Horton Foote’s excellent screenplay. Of course, movies have a long history of transliterating novels into screenplays (that is to say : spoken into visual language) but, thankfully, To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t bowdlerized in the process. Seeing the film enhances reading the book and vice versa. The book has never gone out of print and last year celebrated it’s 50th Anniversary.
Such is the monumental task playwright Christopher Sergel set before himself when he decided to adapt Lee’s novel to the stage, currently playing at The Dallas Theater Center‘s Wyly Theatre at ATTPAC. It premiered in Monroeville, Alabama (Harper Lee’s hometown) in 1991, and is performed there, annually, the second act culminating in their actual courtroom. Imagine the pressure. There’s a good chance your parents read the book, and maybe even their parents. Lines from the film and text (“Come on out, Boo.” “Atticus won’t play football for the Methodists.”) are familiar to young and old. Many feel they know the characters (Scout, Jem, Dill Harris, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell) as if they were family. How challenging it must have been to come this pervasively honored and beloved material and do justice to it.
I have no doubt Sergel strived to capture this powerful, often wrenching story of an African American man named Tom Robinson, who stands accused of rape when an impoverished, white teenage girl, Mayella Ewell, tries to seduce him. The shame inferred by an intensely racist community compels her to lie, and Robinson may sacrifice his life for the sake of white hypocrisy. To his credit, Mr. Sergel certainly didn’t stoop to appropriating Foote’s screenplay though it may amount to something of a gloss on the novel. Sergel’s drama includes differing details from director Robert Mulligan’s film, as well as so many of the quotes we know and love. He tries to create a unique experience that can be appreciated entirely on its own, apart from any knowledge of Lee or Mulligan’s work.
A great deal of the beauty in To Kill A Mockingbird comes from Lee’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of three children: Jem and Scout, son and daughter of Atticus Finch, and their new friend, Dill Harris. As children in summertime will, they have a tendency to meander and roam and get into places they shouldn’t. Another brilliant touch was the character of Boo Radley, a misunderstood hermit and the subject of much gossip. Boo echoes the recurring wisdom that we can’t count on others for a genuine version of the truth. Harper Lee goes to some lengths to create a rich, vivid context outside Tom Robinson’s trial, and avoid editorializing and summary. To quote the well-worn adage : It’s better to illustrate than tell. By making Scout, a tomboy, the narrator, we get a lot of information that we must interpret for ourselves. Atticus knows his children are smart enough to surmise subtext, and the other adults are too embarrassed to explain. This is far more effective than dealing in homilies, however appropriate to the situation they might be.
On the plus side, Sergel does what he can to make the story fresh, while hanging on to key passages and events. Sadly, this doesn’t always work out well in practice. The sequence in which Reverend Sykes admonishes the children to stand up, because, “your father’s passing” falls flat, because we cannot see the entire gallery of folks (expressing gratitude and respect) that was obvious in the other pieces. None of the actors (including Jeremy Webb as Atticus) attempt to emulate the screen stars from that classic film, and it’s all to the good. Webb is poignant and personable, without summoning the ghost of Mr. Peck.
My feeling is that Sergel, aiming to transmit the gist of the story, economically and incisively, has lost a lot of the texture and subtlety that makes Lee’s story so persuasive and overwhelming. The plot is really kind of tawdry, but Lee humanizes all the characters, getting Atticus Finch to set the standard of ethics. It may be a signifier of the times we live in, but it felt like Sergel’s script spelled out a lot of conclusions we could (and should) sort out on our own. The more we participate in the story, the more we take with us. I never thought I’d be arguing for less brevity, but the actors and the audience need more time to get comfortable and involved in the story, beyond the turmoil going on in the courtroom.
Despite some of these shortcomings, I have to say, more often than not, I was profoundly touched by the show. Think of Sergel’s piece as a devoted, precisely executed, homage to a novel that can still astonish readers half a century after it’s release. DTC’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird is well-realized, and the cast impeccable, with especially impressive performances by : Jeremy Webb, Anastasia Munoz, Akin Babatunde, Bob Hess, Sally Vahle, M. Denise Lee, Akron Watson and Matthew Gray.
The Dallas Theater Center proudly presents To Kill A Mockingbird (adapted for the stage by Christopher Serge, from the novel by Harper Lee) playing October 21st -November 20th, 2011 in The Wyly Theatre at AT&T Performing Arts Center. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201 214-880-0202. www.dallastheatercenter.org