High School students are the toughest audiences there are. They’ll let you know in a flash if a show isn’t working. You could hear that proverbial pin yesterday morning at Marshall Hughes’ miraculous production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Roxbury Community College. The Roxbury Repertory Theatre’s production of the Harper Lee classic held that audience in thrall for over two hours (which sped by, by the way) and they gasped, cheered and cried (yes, hankies came out all over the auditorium, including mine) in exactly the right places.
The most surprising aspect for me was that MOCKINGBIRD no longer seemed dated. I’ve seen dozens of static productions but Hughes and company solved the prickly problems which usually make me cringe, chiefly the “white man as savior” focus. This time, Atticus Finch and the neighborly narrator seem all of a piece of the story’s fabric, not elevated paragons of “white” wisdom. This production has been so carefully thought out – and carried out – that every line registers and Harper Lee’s shimmering words linger in your brain. I heard speeches I had forgotten were even in the book. Every character now stands out in relief and the whole work resonates so soundly that you can’t help but think of the innocents on death row in 2011.
Every element meshes, from Mirta Tocci’s homage to the original book jacket (that gnarled tree branch) to Hughes’ ingenious direction (students are invited on stage to be spectators during the trial!) to the lovely performances, each and every one remarkable, especially the children in the cast. Some parts are double cast so at my performance I saw Jawel Zimbabwe as Scout’s courageous brother and Lee Carter Brown as the kindly narrator. Alexa Niziak lights up the stage as little Scout and Josh Sussman and Zimbabwe create lots of laughs as the adventurous boys. Cliff Blake makes the father/attorney less stiff than most actors do, so he’s instantly more human than icon, more father than disciplinarian. What a coup!
Another coup is Jeffrey Chrispin’s Tom. He certainly is a victim of the racist justice system in our country… but he doesn’t portray him like a cowering victim. Chrispin gives him an inner strength and in doing so, he makes Atticus’ explanation at play’s end practically sear into the ether (that Tom was “fed up with white mens’ chances”).
From Walter Driscoll’s thoughtful country sheriff to Lida McGirr’s addled old lady to Ron Murphy’s righteous, soaring voiced preacher to Emil Kreymer’s ominous, tortured villain to each and every character, this MOCKINGBIRD lets the story truly sing…and finally does Lee’s novel justice.