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Theater Review: Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities)

Published May 7, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Back in 1963, before Greg Guma made his mark as a Vermont journalist and political activist, he was honing his rhetorical skills in high school, winning dramatic interpretative contests with his delivery of Atticus Finch's closing statement to the jury from To Kill a Mockingbird. Something about the speech "resonated" with the young Guma. "It was about civil rights," he says. "Frankly, in my Catholic high school we didn't learn much about that."

Atticus' eloquent defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman is indeed a resonant piece of writing, one that made an impression first in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and then, even more indelibly, in the 1962 film version with Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance as the small-town Alabama lawyer and widowed father of two.

This month, local audiences get the chance to revisit that famous speech and the other charms of Mockingbird in a stage adaptation by Vermont Stage Company. And coincidentally, this past weekend at Burlington City Hall, under the auspices of the Catalyst Theatre Company, Greg Guma premiered a play with its own share of courtroom drama: Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities) is an epic examination of labor unrest in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.

VSC's Mockingbird reminds us why Lee's story has remained so beloved, without, however, succeeding completely as a work of theater. Guma's play is clearly a work in progress, but it benefits from an ingenious radio-drama approach that shows how much can be communicated by crafty direction, a versatile cast and a few well-chosen sound effects.

It seems to me there are three keys to a successful revival of Mockingbird.

Key #1: The kids. This is as much their story as Atticus'. In Lee's novel, tomboy Scout, her older brother Jem and their diminutive but wise neighbor Dill ("I'm small but I'm old!") are affectionately yet unsentimentally drawn, as real as fictional kids get. Lee wrote from her own childhood memories -- she grew up in a small town in southwest Alabama, where her neighbor, the model for Dill, was Truman Capote -- and the narrative follows their progression from innocent games to a deeper understanding of the adult world. For Mockingbird to work, you have to have child actors who can pull these roles off.

Key #2: The mood. Lee did a marvelous job evoking the opposite poles of experience in small-town Alabama circa 1935: the imagined monsters of childhood and the real monsters of racism and murder. The staging should put us right there, sharing the lazy eternities of summer afternoons and the sudden chills.

Key #3: That speech. The message is right on, of course: "There is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller... That institution, gentlemen, is a court." But the speech is also a revelatory character moment, one in which all the elements of Atticus' personality -- his careful diction, his bravery, his clear-eyed view of the world -- coalesce. In the film, when Peck exits the courtroom in defeat and the black observers in the balcony pay tribute by standing en masse, it's a credit to his performance that the moment is touching rather than infuriating. Any actor tackling the role on stage has to contend with filmgoers' memories of Peck's magisterial presence.

How does Vermont Stage do on these three counts?

First, and pretty wondrously, they got the kids. Oh, there's some playing-with-hair and hands-in-pockets awkwardness, but the children -- in particular 10-year-old Francesca Blanchard as Scout -- are the production's most consistent bright spots. Blanchard is charmingly forthright; you have no trouble believing her sweet fearlessness could unman the mob threatening to attack her father at the jailhouse. This is one of the production's more effective scenes, even though the crowd doesn't seem particularly menacing. And she nails the countrified humor with aplomb: "He's gone frog-stickin' without a light."

As Jem, François Bouchett captures the tremulous intensity of a boy growing up, and Joey Behlendorf's Dill has just the right mix of formality and mischief.

One feels for them, though, and for the adult actors, too, because they're not given much to work with in their environment. VSC Artistic Director Mark Nash has staged the play in the round, and it's a small space, so set designer Jenny Fulton goes for spareness: Two porch-like platforms, a tire swing and assorted chairs must represent several different locales. The courtroom works fine; Atticus can address the entire audience as if we were the gentlemen of the jury, and the witness box is represented, ingeniously enough, by a swivel chair.

But too often in the neighborhood scenes, the actors just stand around -- there are few levels to work with, and they haven't been directed to use the space very creatively. For instance, the house of mysterious neighbor Boo Radley is the nexus of all childhood fears, but we never feel its presence, either through the actors' work or the set design. Mean neighbor Mrs. Dubose (Ramona Godfrey) is periodically wheeled in on a dolly, which is supposed to read as front porch. It comes off more as "Dubose" ex machina.

Distances are vague, and timing is off -- for example, moments after the famous incident when Atticus shows unexpected shooting prowess by picking off a rabid dog, the neighbor ladies stroll in from where the dog was. Good thing Atticus was a crack shot.

All these flaws detract from the mood. At the outset, things look promising; there are field songs and bird sounds, and when Miss Maudie (Mary Wheeler) talks about the mimosa in the air, you can almost smell it. But the major problem with the production, and with Christopher Sergel's adaptation, is that they're too literal, trotting out incidents in pedestrian, Cliff Notes fashion rather than spinning them into a compelling yarn.

The attack on Jem by a man seeking revenge on his father should be harrowing, but it's staged in such a rushed, cursory manner that it hardly registers. Atticus' ominous warning that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird -- a statement foreshadowing the fate of Tom Robinson, the innocent man accused of rape -- comes well into the book and film, but occurs in the first few minutes of the stage adaptation. The actors might as well hold up a sign announcing "MESSAGE." Wheeler is a soothing, stable presence as Maudie, but when she turns to the audience and narrates, it seems merely a device for the playwright to dispense with some plot points.

The courtroom scenes work well enough. Esau Pritchett and Emily Cervini may overdo the quakes and quivers a bit in the roles of Robinson and his accuser, but their anguish is affecting. And it should be noted that two of the key actors in this scene do impressive double duty elsewhere in the play: Bob Nuner, stern Judge Taylor, is also shy farmer Cunningham; Cy Moore, an oily prosecutor Gilmer, transforms himself shortly thereafter into a halting, gentle Boo. Jim Reid is solid throughout as sensible Heck Tate, the sheriff.

As for Atticus, Christian Kauffman may not make you forget Peck, but he makes That Speech his own. In a way, he's more appropriate for the role than Peck; he has the height, the gravity and the mellifluous voice but he's also a little more worn-looking and less movie-starish, so it's easy to accept when his kids complain that he's too old. Kauffman stumbled over a few lines on opening night; no doubt he will kick up the intensity a notch over the run.

All in all, if you know To Kill a Mockingbird, you'll find this production a serviceable, if uneven, revival; if you don't, its sometimes clunky storytelling may make you wonder why the original won all those awards. If that's the case, check out the book or the movie and you'll discover a minor modern classic.

Greg Guma's Inquisitions

may send you running back to your history books. Editor of the Burlington-based progressive newsletter Toward Freedom, Guma has spent years researching the events in his historical drama, the Haymarket bombing in 1886 Chicago and the Red Scare of 1919. Not surprisingly, then, one problem with the play in its current stage of development is that there's perhaps too much history and not enough drama, an overload of archival oratory and a multitude of characters and events. He's also in the midst of deciding whether he wants to write a play or a screenplay or a piece of agitprop, and right now the piece has aspects of all three.

That said, the script has great potential, particularly in its focus on one fascinating character, and director Bill Boardman, known for his work with the Panther Players on radio and CD, found numerous inventive ways to tell the story through the convention of a script-in-hand radio drama.

A brief historical refresher: On May 4, 1886, during a labor protest in Chicago's Haymarket area, someone in the crowd threw a bomb which killed seven police officers. Political radicals were arrested by the dozens as a result, and eight of the most visible were brought to trial and convicted of murder even though there was virtually no evidence of their involvement. Four of those men were hung, and one killed himself in prison.

Bombings alleged to be the work of anarchists were also a key factor in the Red Scare of 1919 and the raids led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Fanning the flames of xenophobia already stirred by WWI, Palmer used the bombings as an excuse to go after "reds" of all stripes, particularly if they were foreign-born, and he deported 249 resident aliens. Palmer's recruitment of a young John Edgar Hoover from the Library of Congress to help with the investigations laid the groundwork for Hoover's FBI.

These summaries don't begin to name all the colorful characters involved, but most of them show up in the Haymarket sections of Guma's play -- everyone from department store mogul Marshall Field to muckraking journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd to the accused anarchists. Guma makes one character the focus of the action, and luckily she's the most interesting: Lucy Parsons, the African-American wife of firebrand anarchist orator Albert Parsons, one of the four men executed. An equal partner of Albert's both in marriage and in activism, Lucy led the unsuccessful fight to free her husband and continued speaking out after his death.

The play begins with a 66-year-old Lucy under interrogation by a federal agent on Nov. 11, 1919, the anniversary of her husband's death. She's been picked up as part of the Palmer Raids. Guma has no hard evidence that she was interrogated at that time, but it's a fair assumption. And the device of the interview allows for segues into Haymarket flashbacks while also providing, in the older Lucy, an enjoyable protagonist.

Two actresses, Sandra Gartner and Sheila Collins, did excellent work portraying Lucy in her older and younger years, respectively, with Gartner particularly effective in capturing both the sass and the sadness of the character.

However, the play returns too often to the interrogation motif, and when J. Edgar himself steps in to harangue Lucy, he's so broadly written that it's like watching two opposing mouthpieces, not an interaction between real human beings. Only when he takes the questioning to uncomfortably personal places -- asking about Lucy's son, a Spanish-American War vet whom she committed to a mental institution -- do we get into more interesting territory. There are still-untapped possibilities to explore in the character of Lucy, and Guma would do well to pull back on some of the political rhetoric and go deeper into the personal details.

A number of other characters capture our attention because of their particular quirks or multiple dimensions. Socialist newspaper editor and Haymarket defendant August Spies is equally contemptuous of Marxism and capitalism; Ruth Wallman, in a nice example of gender-blind casting, was humorously flinty in the role. Roger Dodge made the most of his moments as the grandstanding prosecutor. Wayne Martens underplayed nicely as both uber-detective Alan Pinkerton and defense attorney "Captain" Black.

Throughout, the ensemble was effective in establishing context, whether as cheering crowds or carousing barflies, and Boardman consistently made astute staging choices. Special credit to light and sound designers Brad Butler and Steve Osterlund, whose contributions made a real case for the potential of the script as a radio drama.

Whatever happens to Inquisitions, it's inarguably timely now, as the contradictory demands of national security and civil liberties are once more at odds. Toward the end of the play Lucy says, "We're all so fragile. How can we make a government that isn't?" I asked Guma the same question in an interview after the performance. His response: "We can try." In recasting historical events in a form that can illuminate these questions, he's making an effort that's worthy of further attention.

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David Warner


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