Amid all the new chatter about Atticus Finch — what he was or wasn't — we tend to forget that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is at heart a child's story. Adults run the universe in 1935 Maycomb, Ala., for better or worse. Yet, we pin our hopes and dreams on Scout, Jem and Dill — kids who will create their lives in reaction to the injustices practiced by small minds in a small town.
The Guthrie Theater launched the Joe Haj era on Friday with a simple, direct production of Harper Lee's famous story. Outgoing associate artistic director John Miller-Stephany lightly guides the play (an adaptation by Christopher Sergel) and his actors draw the sharply defined characters who let this story tell itself.
Miller-Stephany's confidence pays off in the work of Mary Bair, Noah Deets and Isaac Leer, who played the kids on Friday night (they alternate with three others). Bair, in particular, plays Scout as the smart, slightly shy girl she is, without showy theatrics. This play is about outsiders — Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, even the Finches — and in Bair's performance, there is an observation of the world that can only come from someone who was left out of the party.
What the kids see in Maycomb is a menagerie: Candace Barrett Birk, looking like Helena Bonham Carter on fright night, plays the racist and dying neighbor lady. Regina Marie Williams has the square shoulders of Calpurnia, the Finches' housekeeper, and Jennifer Blagen is pertly coifed as a local busybody. Peter Thomson is superb as the crotchety judge who recognizes a sham of justice — such as the one that cranky and obstreperous Mayella Ewell (Ashley Rose Montondo) is trying to foist on his court of law. Stacia Rice narrates the action as Miss Maudie Atkinson and her calm, sonorous voice is the perfect pitch for Miller-Stephany's intentions.
The children, of course, will be most deeply affected by good and evil, represented in Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell. Bruce Bohne's Ewell has the soul and mien of a swamp creature — a man stinking in his own racism and brutality.
Baylen Thomas plays the central role with a calm modesty, sure of his intelligence and the rightness of his cause — defending the wrongly accused Tom Robinson (anxious and scared Ansa Akyea). Thomas builds Atticus on method and moderation, not histrionics. We might like a dash more earthy charm in this righteous Boy Scout.
Are the racial themes old in "Mockingbird?" They are of their time, yet it's hard not to think of the Sandra Bland case after seeing this play again. She was arrested for failing to signal a turn in Texas and died in jail. Injustice is, sadly, timeless.
Miller-Stephany left the Guthrie this year, and it's great to see in this cast so many of the actors he helped get on the Guthrie stage during his close to 20 years. Miller-Stephany found them in local theater and gave them a chance. He's a good man for that.