Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller on its 1960 release and won the Pulitzer Prize. The 1962 film further embedded the book’s place in the culture, and the novel’s hero, lawyer Atticus Finch, has become such a touchstone (helped in no small part by Gregory Peck’s career-defining performance) that in 1997 the Alabama Bar Association erected a monument to him — a fictional character.
So here’s a work with no shortage of artistic and cultural baggage. Prime Stage Theatre, as part of its 20th-anniversary season, presents a solid production of Christopher Segel’s stage adaptation, directed by Scott P. Calhoon and featuring a remarkably large cast of local performers.
Mockingbird is, of course, the story of a young girl, nicknamed Scout, and her coming of age in 1935 rural Alabama. She, along with her older brother, Jem, and their childhood friend Dill, are spectators to a nightmare of racial injustice which finds her father, Atticus, going up against a town of people once considered friends.
On one hand, Segel’s adaptation never quite makes the leap to self-contained theatrical event; much of the evening feels like someone reading the book aloud. But a big plus is that this version allows one of the novel’s strengths to come through, specifically Lee’s narration, here presented in monologues by Scout as a grown-up. We’ve all read the novel and seen the movie … but it’s still impossible not to tear up at the bittersweet, heartbreaking ending.
Calhoon permits some big playing from his actors, but he does move us through the story with dispatch and, best of all, elicits expressive, professional performances from his three young actors, Grace Vensel, Elliot Pullen and Simon Nigam (Scout, Jem and Dill). Brian Ceponis has the impossible task of obliterating Peck from our brains. I’m not sure that anyone could ever do that, but his is a thoroughly respectable attempt.
The production is notable for strong supporting performances, including Samantha A. Camp, Linda Haston, Webster Black, Alyssa LaVacca, Stefan Lingenfelter and Brian Starks. But everyone involved has paid proper respect to Lee’s contemporary classic.