REVIEW: Park Square's production underscores the important place Harper Lee's story occupies in American literature.
Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a tale that doesn't grow old with the telling, as Park Square Theatre's current production ably demonstrates. While it encapsulates a time and place in America's past, the story's themes, characters and basic sense of humanity simultaneously transcend specificity.
Director David Mann and a sizable cast allow Christopher Sergel's stage version to unfold at a lazy pace, evoking endless summer days. Neighbors chat on porches and children play ball, while the scent of flowers and the distant music of a gospel chorus fill the air. Designer Joel Sass' lovely set evokes this idyll with graceful windows and arbors that roll in and out of place and a backdrop arched with trees.
Tension, however, brews beneath the surface, revealing a town divided by racial unrest. On the one side is Bob Ewell, played with venomous deliberation by Joel Raney, who has falsely accused Tom Robinson (Payton Woodson), a black man, of a crime. Raney lends his villain a strutting, stiff-legged posture and a suitable chip-on-the-shoulder insolence. On the other side is Atticus Finch, whom Fred Wagner offers up with low-keyed pragmatism and thoughtful authority, as patient with the foibles of his neighbors as he is with his children. Between these extremes, townspeople take sides in a moral battle culminating in Robinson's trial.
Mann has assembled a fine cast to bring alive this battleground. Austene Van is the cook who's become a surrogate mother to Atticus' children and Peggy O'Connell is their kind-hearted and perceptive neighbor. Elizabeth McCormick, Emma Wondra and Jasper Herman give lively, unforced performances as the three children through whose eyes this story is told. Miriam Monasch is delightfully unlikable as the cranky old lady next door, while Stephanie Crawford brings sprightly humor and avid curiosity to an inveterate gossip.
Warren C. Bowles, as Reverend Sykes, and his accompanying congregation -- Nina Black Zachary, Michael L. Brown, Delores G. Matthews-Zeno and Annamichele Spears -- fill the stage with music and even bring the audience to its feet at the end.
While this production loses a little steam after Atticus' fiery closing speech at Robinson's trial, it's a solid piece of work that argues for its place in the canon of American literature.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer