A mist of memories wafts over Hartford Stage’s delicate and affectionate production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There’s the memory of Harper Lee’s beloved book, of the late Robert Mulligan’s sensitive 1962 screen version and of the audience’s own real or imagined past recalling youthful wonder, parental protection and innocence in simpler times. Eventually, that nostalgic glow fades and a separate yet honorable version emerges in helmer Michael Wilson’s graceful production, starring Matthew Modine as Atticus Finch.
Wilson has tinkered with Christopher Sergel’s 1970 adaptation, which began as a vehicle for schools and community groups before professional theater companies increasingly found the value of the brand. Wilson recrafts the script, tapping into Lee’s novel as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, with whom the Hartford a.d. has a long-standing professional relationship. (Wilson recently directed “Dividing the Estate” on Broadway, and is gearing up to stage the scribe’s epic “Orphans’ Home” cycle.)
Wilson places the Foote-print squarely on this production, keeping the staging simple, the sentimentality in check and the perfs, for the most part, true to the novel. He also brings that authentic Southern voice to the staging by using thesp Hallie Foote as the play’s narrator, the tomboy Scout as an adult looking back at her coming of age in a Depression-era small town in Alabama.
Foote’s dry and knowing delivery sets the tone for the show, as does Jeff Cowie’s faded snapshot of a set, allowing characters to literally step through the pictures of the past and play out the action on an open thrust stage with minimal set pieces and props.
The first act is episodic, mainly detailing the daily life of widower Finch’s two precocious children, Scout (Olivia Scott) and Jem (Henry Hodges), and their visiting pal Dill (Andrew Shipman). The sense of place and people slowly emerges, as seen through the perspectives of the youths, as does the semblance of a plot. Well-crafted, mood-setting narration and John Gromada’s evocative sound and music smartly serve to bridge the gaps filled more vividly on page and screen.
Story becomes focused and driven when the production settles for the extended courthouse scene in the second act, in which lawyer Finch defends a black farmhand falsely accused of raping a white woman. Life lessons are lovingly understated as Scout and Jem discover their father’s family and community values.
Modine is best in his scenes with the children, bringing warmth and dignity to the role, without making the character too solemn or passive. But his climactic summation at trial’s end lacks the nuance and build to stir beyond single-note outrage at the obvious injustice. All three children bring their own fresh talents to familiar characters, carrying their scenes with confidence and charm, and avoiding preciousness.
The large cast includes 12 Equity actors, five additional principals and extras from the community filling for the population of Maycomb, Ala. Standouts in the supporting cast include Douglas Lyons as Tom Robbins, Jennifer Harmon as neighbor Maudie Atkinson, Nafe Katter as the Judge and Virginia Kull as Mayella.