For the fourth play in its ambitious five-year American Cycle revisiting classic texts, Seattle’s Intiman Theatre is presenting “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the stage version of the beloved 1960 novel that became perhaps an even more beloved movie. The inevitable comparisons seem almost unfair. Is this play as profound or poetic as Harper Lee’s book? No. Are the performances as indelible as those of screen stars Gregory Peck or young Mary Badham? Of course not. But in a fundamental way, the production is a success, insofar as it points audiences back to one of the most illuminating tales ever told of social injustice and coming of age in small-town America.
Christopher Sergel adapted that story for the stage 20 years ago. Intiman’s production is directed by Fracaswell Hyman and designed by Alec Hammond in almost Southern Gothic style.
A cluster of tilted, dilapidated old houses crowd around a bright red tree; the sky is hung with red wooden chairs, dangling at the ends of menacing ropes. At the center is the dirt yard where tomboy Scout (Keaton Whittaker) and her big brother Jem (Nick Robinson) wrestle with the mysteries of childhood. And where they witness their father, the lawyer Atticus Finch (David Bishins), take on the cause of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
The action unfolds quickly — maybe too quickly. Sergel’s script dramatizes only the most momentous scenes, ignoring much of the subtlety of the book. Things happen: A dog is shot; an angry mob quelled; a man put on trial; two children attacked and then rescued. But we don’t have the time to turn these events over in our minds or hearts, the way Lee looked at them first this way and then that, in her deliberate, Southern manner.
Perhaps most lacking is Scout’s voice; on the page and in the movie, she narrates the action, leads us to it, like a child taking an adult by the hand. The stage version distances the audience from Scout, her interior world and her sometimes unintentionally funny observations.
Some narration is assumed by the Finches’ neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, played with warmth and conviction by Patti Cohenour (“The Light in the Piazza”). And other cast members work valiantly to bridge the gaps. The youngsters (Whittaker, Robinson and Lino Marioni as Dill) do a fine job of acting like normal, restless kids, and almost all their lines are intelligible (not easy with those Alabama accents). Sean Phillips makes the most of defendant Tom Robinson’s short courtroom appearance. And Russell Hodgkinson and Liz Morton, as Robinson’s accusers, are so convincingly despicable that the audience actually boos them at the curtain call.
With the long courtroom scene at its center, the play of course rests on Atticus’ broad shoulders, and Bishins gives him a more human surface than Peck’s almost saintly screen portrayal. This Atticus shows anger when the jury votes against him; irritability when his children misbehave; vulnerability when they are imperiled. He very nearly bullies accuser Mayella Ewell on the witness stand. It’s a legitimate approach, aiming for a more fully rounded character with visible flaws. But Bishins’ job is unenviable. How do you escape the long shadow of the man who was named the No. 1 screen hero in history by the American Film Institute?
You don’t. The best you can do, perhaps, is pay homage. And while this production may not move audiences to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a new light, it treats the original with seriousness and respect. That may be enough, at least in a city as bookish as Seattle. Due to audience demand, Intiman reports, the production has been extended two weeks past its original closing date, and now ends Nov. 10.