Fifty years after its publication, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel about racial prejudice in the Depression-era Deep South remains among the most influential and controversial books in the United States. No surprise, then, that its appearance at this season’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival resulted in a virtual sell-out before the season even began.
Those who have not read the 300-page novel, published in 1960, might be familiar with the 1962 Oscar-winning movie adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the widowed father of Jem and Scout and the lawyer who incurs the wrath of his neighbors when he defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
Much of the story’s power lies in its point of view. Scout, Finch’s 9-year-old tomboy daughter, is now an older woman, reminiscing about the summer when she, her older brother (Jem) and their mischievous friend Dill came face-to-face with life’s ugly underbelly.
The story moves back and forth between grownup Scout’s remembrances and flashbacks to her younger self, living out those memories in present time. Seeing prejudice through the eyes of children is a powerful experience.
This OSF production, directed by Marion McClinton, is based on a script adaptation by Christopher Sergel. The adaptation relies heavily on the older Jean Louise (Scout) Finch’s narrative, which gives the audience the wonderful flavor of Lee’s inspired writing but sometimes slows the energy.
The elegant Dee Maaske, a 19-season OSF veteran, does a commendable job as the nearly omnipresent narrator, though there were a few verbal stumbles during opening weekend, quickly caught and handled.
McClinton and set designer David Gallo let the story shine, with a no-frills set (at one point it is transformed into a two-level courtroom), straightforward costumes and casting (with one exception, noted later), and subtle use of music. A rickety screen door and a wooden swing that lowers from the ceiling are the only three-dimensional props used for the Finch home.
Clever use of projection creates silhouetted houses against the back wall, an imaginative way to display the mysterious shack where the reclusive “Boo” Radley is rumored to have stabbed his father in the leg with scissors. The three youngsters spend much of the summer watching the house and brainstorming ways to lure Boo – who turns out to be much less scary than his nickname implies — outside.
OSF was able to find three local talents strong enough to play the pivotal roles of the barefoot playmates. Kaya Van Dyke embodies the entirely likeable coming-of-age Scout. Braden Day, who played Jem, was sick and struggling with a cough during opening weekend, but still took the stage. And the diminutive, feisty Dill (inspired, incidentally, by Lee’s neighbor and writing comrade Truman Capote) is played by Leo Pierotti.
“We kept in our back pocket the option of bringing in professionals from New York or L.A., but we wanted, for the spirit of it, to cast from the Rogue Valley,” OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said during an opening weekend press conference.
I found some of the children’s lines difficult to hear (though some of that was likely due to Braden’s illness) – and they often spoke over audience laughter, meaning some lines were entirely inaudible.
Mark Murphey delivers a strong performance as Atticus Finch, as does Isabell Monk O’Connor in the role of Calpurnia, the Finches’ housekeeper and de facto mother to Jem and Scout. (O’Connor is also playing Escalus, the Duke of Vienna’s chief of staff, in “Measure for Measure.”) Her boisterous scolding was a crowd-pleaser.
Deaf actor Howie Seago (in his third season at OSF) is cast as Bob Ewell, the abusive father of the woman who claims she was raped by a black workman. Nineteen-year-old Mayella Ewell is played by the fresh-faced Susannah Flood, a relative OSF newcomer whom theatergoers from last season will remember as flighty Lydia in “Pride and Prejudice” and weepy Ophelia in “Hamlet.” (You can also catch Flood in “The Language Archive” through June 17.)
When Seago is cast, Rauch said, “each director or playwright has to figure out how his deafness becomes part of the fabric of the story.” Ewell’s main scene is as a witness in the trial of Tom Robinson (his other scenes involve more violence than voice).
A dramaturg’s research showed that courthouse proceedings in the 1930s weren’t likely to include interpretive accommodations for the deaf, Rauch said, so Mayella does all the interpreting for her father in this riveting part of the story.
To do this, Seago and Flood devised a homespun sign language. A poor Alabama family scraping through the Depression was unlikely to have learned traditional American Sign Language, Rauch said.
Peter Macon, who has played Othello and Macbeth in three prior seasons with OSF, does a stellar job as Robinson (I found his performance more satisfying than Brock Peters’ movie role).
Despite the play’s sell-out (many tickets were purchased by school groups), OSF encourages wanna-be viewers to check for cancellations of group or individual tickets. You can check availability online or call the box office at 800-219-8161.
Read a review of OSF’s 2011 production of “Measure for Measure” here.
––Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper reporter and editor since 1992. A longtime theater fan, she sees up to four plays annually at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You usually can find her in the lobby at intermission eating a pre-ordered, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Candace lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival