Regional Reviews: St. Louis
To Kill a Mockingbird
In this To Kill a Mockingbird, Risa Brainin directs, and Lenne Klingaman provides beautiful, laconic narration as the grown-up Scout, moving through swirling set pieces and characters from the past, many of them twirling by like horses on a carnival carousel. It may be impossible not to love this production: as evidence, look to all the hugging in the audience after opening night, as if our justice-loving hearts had finally woken up from a long bad nightmare.
The legendary figure of Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer, is played to perfection by Jonathan Gillard Daly, as the calm voice of reason in a Depression-era small Southern town where black culture seems to exist on an entirely different wavelength. The black actors on stage sing increasingly powerful hymns: coming and going like wanderers in the desert. But, as you may remember from the 1960 novel, this is not where they finally arrive at the Promised Land.
Kaylee Ryan is matter-of-fact excellent as Scout, and her twin brother Ronan Ryan even more so as her complex, older brother Jem. Forty-five years ago my ninth-grade English teacher suggested it's structurally more Jem's story than Scout's, in the sense that the book begins and ends with remembrance of him. Similarly, Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation is more consistently an emotional journey for Jem, and also for Dill (the surprising Charlie Mathis, as a very genuine "character" visiting from Mississippi), than it is for Scout. The character of the visitor Dill was inspired by the childhood version of author Truman Capote, back around 1935. But all three young actors guide us sweetly through a sometimes bitter story, in a way that encourages us to become childlike again.
Beyond the great child-actors, a smorgasbord of first-rate local talents fill the stage here, with Alan Knoll terrific as the scoundrel Bob Ewell, and Christopher Harris as the eerie "Boo" Radley. Ben Nordstrom is flawless as the sharp county prosecutor in the big rape trial scenes (in which we are nicely drawn-in as the jury itself). And Jerry Vogel, as the local sheriff, is humorously deferential to Atticus, when confronted by a mad dog, and gently assertive in tying everything up at the end.
Tanesha Gary, as the Finch's housekeeper Calpurnia, gets big laughs laying down the law for the children in act two; and outstanding local actress Amy Loui as a neighbor-lady graciously fills in a lot of missing information about Atticus and life (for the children). Cynthia Darlow is fearsome and hilarious as Mrs. Dubose, haranguing young Jem and Scout. Whit Reichert is noble and cantankerous as the local judge, and Terrell Donnell Sledge is quietly mythic as the black man falsely accused, Tom Robinson.
Rachel Fenton as Mayella Ewell (the purported victim here) is spellbinding on the witness stand, as a 19-year-old girl of extreme poverty, swept one way by desire, and the other by social and family pressures. Ms. Fenton (with the aid of director Brainin) presents Mayella as a ruinous mixture of pride and humiliation, with strange depth and a genuine presence, wounded on multiple levels.
Through March 5, 2017, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. For more information visit www.repstl.org.