Adapting a beloved literary classic for the theater presents many challenges. How does the unlimited scope of the novelist’s imaginative world translate into two hours of dialogue on a rectangular stage? When theatergoers already know the plot, how can the script create fresh tension? Tampering with cherished characters who already live in readers’ hearts and minds risks alienating audience members.
It’s hard to think of a more beloved American classic than Harper Lee’s poignant tale of free-spirited children and troubled adults in 1930s Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Wanna argue with U.S. librarians who voted it best novel of the 20th century? The Vermont Humanities Council selected Lee’s tale for this year’s Vermont Reads program, in which people across the state dive into and discuss one book. In conjunction with this, Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater is presenting a remarkably well-crafted theatrical adaptation.
While the script effectively distills the story, LNT’s current production yields mixed results. The visual elements sing, and most of the 14-member ensemble turn in compelling performances. But directors Margo Whitcomb and Kathleen Keenan make a few poor choices, the most damaging of which is casting Keenan as the narrator.
The story unfolds through the memories of Jean Louise Finch, the grown-up version of plucky, preteen tomboy Scout. During a sultry summer in small-town Maycomb, Scout, big brother Jem and friend Dill pass the time as ragtag, overall-clad, mini-musketeers. They invent stories, play games and dare each other to venture near the foreboding house of never-seen neighbor Boo Radley.
Jem and Scout have a close, quirky bond with their father, whom they call Atticus. Their mother died when they were very young; stern housekeeper Calpurnia watches over them while dad runs his law practice. When a local judge assigns Atticus to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, Maycomb’s prejudices boil to the surface. The lawyer knows the case is lost before it’s begun. But he vows to see the trial through, and the children learn stark lessons. Not all of which turn out to be so bad.
Donna Stafford’s beautiful scenic design uses architectural fragments to reflect the disjointed nature of memory. Geometric shapes with rounded edges represent abstracted pieces of rooftops, chimneys and columns. Set pieces reinvent themselves: The Finch’s front porch becomes the courtroom platform. Hazy pastel hues of yellow and teal radiate the heat of a remembered Southern summer. Boo Radley’s Wizard of Oz-ian tree looms like a foreboding creature.
Other design elements support this atmosphere. Jeffrey E. Salzberg’s lighting seems too dim at times, but dark themes and nighttime scenes merit the murky blues and greens. Sound designer Shawn Sturdevant supplies crickets aplenty to summon up steamy evenings. And Cora Fauser’s costumes provide an eloquent shorthand to Maycomb social station. Overalls and shoes speak for a character before he utters a line of dialogue.
To Kill a Mockingbird confronts painful issues that were still getting people killed when the book was first published in 1960. The gentle first-person narrator makes the difficult subject matter accessible. She weaves wisdom and wistfulness into her account, but mostly just tells the tale. When LNT staged this show in 2008, Anna Soloway played the adult Jean Louise exactly this way: a calm, almost spectral presence who helps the story unfurl.
As the current Jean Louise, Keenan often disrupts rather than facilitates the reverie that the production elements establish. Her stage presence is sometimes stiff, her Southern drawl syrupy and clichéd, with melodramatic diction that stresses every other word. It’s difficult to see this narrator as the adult version of the impish, impetuous Scout.
And Libby Belitsos does make a wickedly willful Scout. She bounds barefoot around the stage with a tomboy’s rambunctious physical energy. At the same time, her eyes flash with the smarts brewing beneath her oft-furrowed brow.
The cast’s other kids perform well, too. As lanky Jem, Altan Cross demonstrates big-brother protectiveness and swagger. Angus Fraser’s pint-sized Dill manifests cheeky, pre-professorial confidence. (Lee based Dill on her pal Truman Capote.) The trio, however, is occasionally ill served by the directors. Several times, blocking turns the kids’ backs to the audience, which makes dialogue difficult to hear.
As Atticus, Kim Bent excels at displaying the father’s deep connection to his children. His low-key performance mirrors the lawyer’s laconic nature. As Calpurnia, dL Sams wonderfully portrays a no-nonsense maternal figure — the sharp housekeeper who really rules the roost.
A quartet of local faves shines in supporting roles. Edgar Lee Davis plays wrongly accused Tom with quiet dignity. Tim Tavcar makes an imperious Judge Taylor. Mark Roberts, as the sheriff, wrestles thoughtfully with the summer’s crimes, and his conscience. As the odious Bob Ewell, who testifies against Tom, Robert Nuner hisses and spits like a cornered cobra.
LNT’s 2008 Mockingbird scored a home run. It’s dangerous to remount a show when such a well-done version remains fresh in the audience’s mind. We treasure our vision of beloved books. But the memory of a perfect play lingers, too.
To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Margo Whitcomb and Kathleen Keenan, produced by Lost Nation Theater. City Hall Auditorium, Montpelier. May 12-15, Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $25-30.