★★★★★ - Irresistible
Nevada Conservatory Theatre brings Harper Lee’s masterpiece "To Kill a Mockingbird" to the stage in an adaptation by Christopher Sergel. Research would lead one to believe Sergel adapted the book and it debuted in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1990. But this is a reworking; productions of his original, Atticus-focused script have been done for decades. A few years from now we’ll see how a planned retelling of the tale by Aaron Sorkin fares on the New York stage.
The production has been delicately directed by Barbara Brennan. She took the effort to explore what’s buried within. Beneath the veneer, it’s about lost innocence as Scout (Caroline Stanton), Jem (Ken Haley), and Dill (Will Haley) are exposed to the ugliness of life via a backdrop of rape and racism in the deep South. This script introduces Jean Louise Finch (Jennifer Rohn), the adult Scout, as narrator. Brennan keeps her tied to each scene, but she’s never a distraction. Yet, when her short monologues come up, she’s there. It’s a tight-wire walk that never falters. Special kudos to Brennan for giving Rohn her due at curtain call; it is, after all, her story.
Rohn brings a perfect touch of reminiscence in tone as she remembers her younger self and the way a little girl reveres her father; it’s not a judgment, it’s a fond remembrance. Her movements and stance always speak that truth. Even in the simple way she shoves her hands into the pockets of her jeans, pulling her shoulders upward, with a tender smile.
Her younger self is energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and wise beyond her years. Caroline Stanton is cute as a button and commands the stage. Scout never backs down from a fight, and family is the most important thing in the world. Stanton stomps in protest and purses in contemplation with equal measure, so we always know what’s rolling around in her brain.
Ken Haley portrays Jem with all the bravado that’s required of a big brother. He’s protector, teacher, and agitator rolled into one small package. Haley delivers a punch line with panache—it lands but doesn’t distract from the underlying current.
As father Atticus, Darren Weller is studied, steady, and deliberate. He delivers a soft tone with everyone. The tension he exhibits is physical. We don’t doubt the fear for the safety of his children is absolute, the stern lecture he delivers in the courtroom still resonates, and his sadness at Tom’s death rings loud and clear.
Dill is necessary to the tale. It’s his visit and desire to lure recluse Boo Radley from his house that begins our journey. Will Haley does a nice job. His slight stature fits the role and he plays it well. Though Dill stands safely away, while exhorting Jem to ever new ways of accomplishing the goal, Haley never takes him into the realm of cowardice.
When Bre McCallum enters as Calpurnia, the Finch household caretaker, she’s a bundle of energy. She’s more than a servant in an era of servitude. McCallum finds the right combinations of emotion in each scene to telegraph she knows the difference. Even when she’s tough on her charges the love for them radiates.
Mayella Ewell (Jessie Johnson), from the poor white trash area of town, accuses Tom Robinson of rape. When she’s testifying, her impudence is front and center, the perception of her place in society born of ignorance. Johnson does well enough in that sense, yet Mayella has been beaten by her father for years and we get no sense of her having been cowed into this.
But acting is reacting, and Jack Lafferty as Bob Ewell doesn’t provide her with the impetus to fear him. His signals are too subtle and don’t build, so an outburst of anger seems to come from nowhere. During Atticus’ summation, he’s calm and collected. Ewell later threatens to kill Atticus, and we again wonder why because Lafferty hasn’t brought a continued transition to the rage. And the attack he makes against the children isn’t realistic.
Stephon Pettway’s Tom Robinson is a study in understated portrayal. He’s appropriately polite and proper to the all-white jurists, with vocal undertones of hurt and betrayal. Pettway finds infinite ways to bring pride to the character but never allows it to overpower the respect he is forced to show.
It’s a huge ensemble that backs this up. The actors all do a handsome job, especially those who sit in the courtroom’s upper galleries. They’re always in the moment to let us know how they feel in whispers, fanning, blotting at beads of sweat, providing a backdrop of believability.
Ian Magnum’s beautiful set is enhanced with smooth transitional lighting by Manuel Ramirez, with Tim Sage’s subtle sound design adding fullness and dimension. If I could find fault with any of the technical aspects, it would be that Scout’s iconic swing is not actually attached to the tree that dominates center stage.
Despite its flaws, Brennan has brought a satisfying, moving, and mesmerizing evening of literature to the stage.
What: To Kill a Mockingbird
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through February 27
2 p.m. Sunday February 14, 21, 28
Where: Nevada Conservatory Theatre, UNLV-Bayley
Tickets: $27.50 - $33 (702) 895-ARTS (2787); www.nct.unlv.edu)
Grade: ***** (Irresistible)
Producer: Nevada Conservatory Theatre; Artistic Director: Christopher V. Edwards; Executive Director: Brackley Frayer; Director: Barbara Brennan; Scenic Design: Ian Magnum; Lighting Design: Manuel Ramirez; Costume Design: Jennifer Van Buskirk; Sound Design: Tim Sage; Technical Director: Jimmy Kwon; Stage Manager: Jade Cagalawan