Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

To Kill a Mockingbird
Zao Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Toxic Avenger, Sondheim on Sondheim, The Haunted, and The Merry Wives of Windsor

Tom Koelbel
Photo by Sharyn Sheffer
Harper Lee's classic 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" depicts a quintessential slice of small-town America. Set during the Great Depression and dealing with racial prejudice, the novel was turned into an Academy Award winning film in 1962, and Zao Theatre is presenting a moving, well-acted production of Christopher Sergel's 1990 theatrical adaptation of Lee's beloved book.

Like Lee's semi-autobiographical and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the play takes place in a fictional small town in Alabama and centers on lawyer Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout. It focuses on racial injustice, as we see through Scout's eyes how her father is appointed to defend a black man who has been accused of beating and raping a young, white, local townswoman. The trial envelops the small town and forces Atticus to confront angry townspeople while seeking to find the truth in the case and trying to impart important lessons to his children.

This adaptation features many of the memorable moments from the book and the film, though some of the things easy to portray on screen aren't quite able to be captured on stage. While the novel and film used a grown-up Scout as a narrator, Sergel incorporates her as a fully fleshed out main character who fills in the gaps and provides details for a few of the sequences that aren't easy to be dramatized. While the end result is equivalent to the novel, or film, brought to life on stage, with very little added dramatic elements, it still works and the life lessons that Scout and her brother Jem learn from the aftermath of the trial resonate today.

Director Mickey Bryce has assembled a strong cast, which includes Tom Koelbel as Atticus and a talented trio of young performers more than capable of bringing Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill vibrantly to life. Trustworthy, likeable, truthful, and level headed are just a few of the many positive traits of Atticus and Koelbel does a fine job of displaying them and instilling the role with a sense of assuredness and simple honesty. While it isn't an overly showy part it does include several well-written lines, including Atticus' stirring and powerful closing remarks in the trial, which Koelbel delivers perfectly. As the grown-up Scout, Carol Bennett does a nice job of instilling her narrative segments with emotion and a fine sense of recollection. And, while Bryce has cast teenagers in what were originally slightly younger characters in the book and film, it doesn't detract from the outcome, with Jacqueline Hall as the younger Scout simply lovely in her ability to give Scout a youthful sense of questioning with wide, expressive eyes and Nick Williams and LJ Deacon realistic as the rambunctious Jem and Dill.

Abraham Ntonya is superb as the soft-spoken and always polite Tom Robinson, the man on trial. His testimony is simply heartbreaking. As the people who are accusing Tom of wrong-doing, Rebecca Johnston and Jeff Huffman are quite good as the contradictory and flustered Mayella and her father, the agitated and violent Bob Ewell. Rounding out the cast are Mitch Etter who is exceptional as the sympathetic sheriff, Larissa Brewington who is spot-on as the sassy and strict yet motherly Finch cook and housekeeper Calpurnia, and Julia Dane-Vlach who adds a sense of optimism as Finch's compassionate neighbor.

Bryce manages the large cast quite effectively, with all of the main cast delivering realistic, truthful performances and an effective use of the large Zao Theater space. I especially like how the aisles are used for a few very effective moments. Bryce also designed the lighting and, with Jean Wawrzyniak-Fry, the set, and they are lovely designs. The set both represents the street the Finches live on and the courtroom, with a nice transformation from one to the other. Carol Searle and Diane Grubb provide an abundance of accurate, period-centric costumes and Bill Williamsen's sound design makes good use of the area microphones, with minimal loss of any relevant dialogue.

Like Lee's novel, the theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is moving and full of hope. While the play may not add anything new to the novel or film, that's understandable, as Lee's book is so powerful that nothing additional is required to make it resonate and be relevant. Zao's production features nice creative designs, clear direction and a wealth of strong performances. The end result is a powerful testament to the timeliness of Harper Lee and the iconic characters she created.

The Zao Theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird runs through November 14th, 2015, with performances at Centerstage Church, 3700 E 16th Ave in Apache Junction. You can get information and tickets by visiting Tickets can also be ordered by calling (602) 320-3275

Directed by Mickey Bryce
Set Design: Mickey Bryce & Jean Wawrzyniak-Fry
Lighting Design: Mickey Bryce
Costumes: Carol Searle, Diane Grubb
Properties: Hank Sheffer, Sharyn Sheffer
Sound Design: Bill Williamsen
Stage Manager: Wendy Smith

Atticus Finch: Tom Koelbel
Scout Finch: Jacqueline Hall
Jem Finch: Nick Williams
Calpurnia : Larissa Brewington
Dill: LJ Deacon
Jean Louise Finch: Carol Bennett
Tom Robinson: Abraham Ntonya
Sheriff Heck Tate: Mitch Etter
Judge Taylor: Randy Wawrzyniak-Fry
Mayella Ewell: Rebecca Johnston
Bob Ewell: Jeff Huffman
Maudie Atkinson: Julia Dane-Vlach
Stephanie Crawford: Skye Ayers
Mrs. Dubose: Deborah Johnson
Nathan/Boo Radley: Gary Ellefson
Reverend Sykes: Stan Sessoms
Mr. Gilmer: Scott Sims
Walter Cunningham: Tom Hall
Helen Robinson: Farah Lourie
Townspeople: Nadine Jackson, Richard Searle, Doug Ulmer, Bill Wiatr, Liz Wiatr

--Gil Benbrook

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