Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is generally assigned to middle and high schoolers. The protagonist, Scout Finch, is about six when the story begins. The Dallas Theater Center/Casa Mañana Theatre co-production skews more toward the older elementary crowd, maintaining serviceable suspense but watering down the most potentially frightening scene to keep things family-friendly.
It’s 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama. The court has appointed Atticus Finch (Jeremy Webb, taking over the role from Ira David Wood III in the Casa production) to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the 19-year-old daughter of the no-account Bob Ewell (James Dybas, a scary and excellent villain). Finch’s two children, Scout (Morgan Richards) and Jem (David Allen Norton), get dragged into the fracas surrounding the trial, partly out of their own curiosity, and partly due to the small town’s determination to involve them.
All the kids— Richards, Norton, and Aidan Langford, who plays Dill— are fine, though the entire production’s loose, neutral-seeming direction shows especially in their performances. There’s some unintelligible high-pitched squeakiness, a few muddled lines that are rushed or difficult to understand, particularly from Langford. But Richards holds it together, and Scout’s job of pushing the plot forward is helped by the advent of Miss Maudie (Sally Nsytuen Vahle) as an adult narrator.
Speaking of adults, the choice of casting new faces works well. Webb’s youngish Atticus is bemused, delighted (mostly) by the curiosity and impishness of his children, resigned to the ways of the world but not world-weary. Occasionally he seemed on the verge of outright laughter at his detractors— making Atticus a little bit more snarky civil rights superhero rather than humble father trying to do the right thing. His serious moments, however, are affecting. Dybas, as Bob Ewell, is the kind of scary that strikes fear in the hearts of adults and children for different reasons. He’s boozed up and menacing, but worse, he’s an ignorant white racist intent in a position of modicum power.
The shadowy, minimal set, echoing the doom and gloom of tragic productions past, was a maddening puzzle. I liked the monochromatic colors, but there’s so much coming and going (both through a screen door and around it) that it became difficult to tell if people were inside the Finch house or out. The big old tree, which plays such a significant role in the lives of the children, is relegated to the side, acting as a bookend. It’s a magnificent thing anyway, but as with the rest of the space, feels underused.
The producers tout the show as suitable for most ages, and it is. Harper Lee’s story remains popular for a reason, though Christopher Sergel’s adaptation borders on preachy. Call me old-fashioned (as a kid, I wasn’t allowed to see a movie or play based on a book before I read it), but even younger theatergoers really should read the book, first, with their parents. The lessons of truth and equality are good; the honesty and respect with which Atticus treats his children sets an equally important example. The courthouse scene still inspires the uncomfortable burn of tears at the end, and the staging— the audience as jury— implicates us all in the injustice that still endures. It’s a theatrical trick, and not a particularly subtle one, but the straightforward symbolism sings clear.