Timely, Provocative ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Opens Friday at Shasta College

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of those rare classics that manages to be both timeless and timely, and that combination made it stand out when Shasta College Theater instructor Greg Thorson was considering scripts for the school’s fall production.

It’s one of those books, he said, that you can read as a student, set aside for 20 years, return and read it again “and you’re just fascinated with how timely it is.”

Thorson said it is thematically associated with “In the Heat of the Night,” which recently wrapped up a successful run at Riverfront Playhouse. “It’s kind of eerie how much they have to say about our current life,” Thorson said.

Setting it as a coming-of-age story for young Scout (played by 10-year-old Linze Zaniroli) adds poignancy, he said. “Her unique perspective is something that touches us.” Marilyn Robrahn plays Jean Louise, the grownup Scout who serves as a narrator of sorts.

In addition to racial intolerance, “Mockingbird” also touches on themes of substance abuse (the bitter Mrs. DuBose, portrayed by A News Café publisher Doni Chamberlain, is addicted to morphine), bias in the judicial system and issues related to carrying concealed weapons.

Thorson said it’s no coincidence the play is enjoying a revival. The Sacramento Theatre Company is mounting a production later this month and Aaron Sorkin is adapting it for a Broadway production scheduled to open in 2017.

Why is “Mockingbird” still important? “It doesn’t talk about life in black and white terms; it shows us the beauty, strengths and weaknesses of living in a small town in Alabama; the care we have for other human beings; sometimes the intolerance as well,” Thorson said.

Dr. Gregory Thorson directs Shasta College's "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Dr. Gregory Thorson directs Shasta College’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Mat McDonald, a part-time faculty member in the theater department, landed his self-professed “dream” role when he was cast as Atticus Finch, the idealized pillar of fairness and integrity.


From left, Sheriff Heck (Keith Rose) is questioned by Atticus Finch (Mat McDonald) during a court session while Bob Ewell (Russell Pietti) looks on and attorney Mr. Gilmer (Peter Hegenauer) takes notes. Photo by Peter Griggs.

One of his big challenges? Trying not to get caught up in the inevitable Gregory Peck comparisons. “I knew I’d get the comparisons for sure, but I was in kind of a unique place. I hadn’t seen the movie in about 10 years, so I just really wanted to delve into it and come at it from my own angle.

“Once you dive into it, and pick up some of the gait and delivery, it’s almost impossible not to (imitate Peck’s performance). At no time am I trying to mimic him, but he channeled the character so well, so if I can get even 10 percent of that I’ll be happy. It is one of the greatest performances on film. You don’t want to try and go against it; you just try and put it in place as a separate entity.”

Like a lot of Shasta College productions, there’s a strong connection with the community, and that relationship serves students and community members alike. McDonald, who has appeared in more than 150 productions, said he’s enjoyed getting to know the cast members and watching the interaction between theater students and some of the more established members of the community theater scene like Robrahn and Russell Piette.

Bob Ewell (Russell Pietti) talks with attorney Mr. Giles (Peter Hegenauer) as Mayella Ewell (Wylie Ernst) looks on. Photo by Peter Griggs.

Bob Ewell (Russell Pietti) talks with attorney Mr. Giles (Peter Hegenauer) as Mayella Ewell (Wylie Ernst) looks on. Photo by Peter Griggs.

“It’s good for students to see people who do it a lot and do it well. It’s kind of wonderfully unique to Shasta College,” McDonald said. Where some college productions are student-only affairs, “here, you get the community members and their experiences. I think it’s a perfect blend.”

Scout’s brother, Jem, is played by Tristan Ford, and young Dill is played by Robert Burke. Johann Hill has been cast as Tom Robinson, the African-American man charged with the rape of a white woman (Mayella Ewell, who is played by Wylie Ernst). Piette plays Mayella’s racist father, Bob Ewell.

Scout Finch (Linze Zanioli), Jem Finch (Tristan Ford) and Dill (Robert Burke) are the children trying to make sense of the events that happened in their Alabama town in 1935.

Scout Finch (Linze Zanioli), Jem Finch (Tristan Ford) and Dill (Robert Burke) are the children trying to make sense of the events that happened in their Alabama town in 1935.

Others in the cast include Claudia Howard as Calpurnia; Marissa Cozens as Maude Atkinson; Chloe Freeland as Stephanie Crawford; James Young as both Nathan and Boo Radley; Keith Rose as Heck Tate; Cole Cassel as Judge Taylor; Elijah West as the Rev. Sykes; Travis Micheal as Walter Cunningham; Peter Hegenauer as Mr. Gilmer; and Marissa Peoples as Helen Robinson.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” opens at 7 p.m. Friday and continues at 7 p.m. on Saturday and Oct. 20-22. 2 p.m. matinee performances are scheduled for Sunday and Oct. 23. Tickets are $10, general; $7, students; available at the box office or by visiting www.shastacollege.edu.

Jon Lewis
Jon Lewis is a freelance writer living in Redding. He has more than 30 years experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Contact him at jonpaullewis@gmail.com.
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