Center REPertory brings new look to classicTo Kill a Mockingbird
By Pat Craig
Posted 4/06/2011

IT IS 1935 in the small town of Maycomb, Ala., the start of an unusual summer when time both stands still and flies by and the adult version of a little girl profoundly affected by the summer travels through time to visit her past.

There is something wonderfully exciting about seeing an old classic take on a new look, as To Kill a Mockingbird does in Center Repertory Company's production of the Harper Lee tale that opened Tuesday in Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.

This isn't a radical change in the stage version of Lee's 1960 masterwork, but a hybrid rendition that uses a grown-up version of the protagonist Scout (Suzanne Irving) as a narrator and a sort of omniscient observer, along the lines of "Our Town's" Stage Manager. The characters are also freed to use much more material from Lee's book and to develop characters in their own right, rather than simply having them reflected in the eyes of the 10-year-old Scout (Olivia Lowe).

As a result, Atticus Finch (Dan Hiatt) is able to show some of his own misgivings and personal difficulties rather than being a monolithic moral giant for his daughter and slightly older son, Jem (Danny Christensen). It also allows the family maid Calpurnia (Allison L. Payne) a chance to explore her own character a bit more deeply.

All of these slight but surprisingly profound changes give the actors terrific roles to master, which they do beautifully here.

The story still centers on the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson (Joseph Ingram), charged with the rape of a white girl, Mayella Ewell (Lina Makdisi), whose vicious, hard-drinking father, Bob (James Hiser), seems to drive the community's racial hatred.

The elements of the story -- the trial and its shocking aftermath, and the convulsive effect it has on Maycomb -- remain in place and won't be discussed in any detail here on the outside chance you have never experienced the book, play or iconic film starring Gregory Peck in the Atticus Finch role. The play is appropriate for older children, even though, admirably, it does not shy away from the story's racial themes or its discussion of rape. Aside from the slightly different slant, what you get here are some wonderful performances, particularly by Hiatt, Lowe, Irving, Hunter Milano as Scout and Jem's friend Dill (said to be based on Harper Lee's childhood pal Truman Capote), and Michael Ray Wisely, who plays Mr. Gilmer, the prosecuting attorney. You also get some charming character turns by Taron C. Hensley as Sheriff Heck Tate and Tom Flynn, who plays Judge Taylor.

Michael Butler directed the play well, infusing it with considerable energy and some delightful small moments, particularly in the interactions of the three children. The set, by Melpomene Katakalos is a simple and extremely effective representation of Maycomb, and Lisa Anne Porter's coaching has given the cast some excellent touches of realism to the dialogue.

Classic To Kill a Mockingbird Graces Lesher Stage
By Lou Fancher
Posted 4/08/2011

Harper Lee’s singular novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, springs to raw, exhilarating life on the Margaret Lesher Stage in Center REPertory Company’s latest production.

The stage adaptation, by Christopher Sergel, premiered in Monroeville, Atlanta, in 1990. But the Oscar-winning film, starring Gregory Peck, and the use of Lee’s book in countless schools throughout the world, leaves most audiences familiar with the play’s major themes: coming of age and racial injustice.

Atticus Finch is a lawyer in a small, southern community. When a black man is accused of raping a poor white girl, Finch is assigned the case and his two, young children are drawn into the ensuing tangle. It’s the 1930’s, when integration was barely a dream in the minds of unborn generations. The trial of the accused, Tom Robinson, opens the hearts and mouths of the town, revealing both hateful lies and thoughtless, wicked deeds.

It all sounds too grim, and it would be, except for the narrator, young Scout, whose spirit of redemption and justice is irrepressible. Accompanied by her older brother, Jem, and their summer companion, the exuberant, curious Dill, Scout supplies a steady dose of youthful idealism to counter the intolerant adult world.

Center REP’s nimble cast pace, run and occasionally, fling themselves across Director Michael Butler’s sparse, threadbare set. Four railings first describe a neighborhood, then, in Act II, a court room. With minimal fuss and a cleverness that could be overlooked, Scenic Designer Melpomene Katakalos turns a coat hanger into a tree and an invisible “fourth wall” becomes the frightening Radley house.

Suzanne Irving (Jean Louise Finch) is marvelous. Weaving seamlessly in and out of the action, she tells the story with charm, humor, courage and just enough hutzpah to make it plainly obvious: she is the young Scout, now grown. It’s a nuanced performance and half the reason the audience is on their feet for the final applause at the end of the evening.

Dan Hiatt (Atticus Finch) is distanced, underplayed, so it’s remarkable to find oneself deeply invested in his character’s struggles. Hiatt is familiar to Bay Area theater goers and his solid, sophisticated acting is on full display.

Olivia Lowe (Scout), Danny Christensen (Jem), and Hunter Milano (Dill) are a perfectly balanced trio. Lowe’s freshness, Christensen’s impeccable timing and Milano’s effervescent energy capture all the best aspects of children, and like all talented child actors, they make us forget the hard work and craft involved.

Lina Makdisi (Mayella Ewell) may have been handed a plum role as the alleged victim, but it is to her credit that she does not fumble the opportunity. From her trembling hands to her twisted, tortured ankles, Makdisi’s physical portrayal is both fearful and wonderful.

Butler, as the director, displays his ability by stepping aside. There’s no grandstanding: just Lee’s novel come to life. Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman and Sound Designer Will McCandless provide the same spare, delicate touch, allowing the powerful story to create its own drama.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a must-see at Center REP
By Kedar K. Adour, M.D.
Posted 4/07/2011

Last evening the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle (SFBACC) honored Center REP for the 2010 production of She Loves Me. They will surely get a nomination for their stark, true to the novel adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird that held the audience spellbound on opening night. Michael Butler, known for his broad directorial stints, demonstrates his versatility fashioning an extremely well paced production giving depth to Harper Lee’s coming of age story of youngsters in 1935 racist Maycomb, Alabama. It earns a rating of ****1/2 out of 5 stars.

It was 50 years ago, that Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize novel was published and the injustice to Southern blacks imbedded in the written word are brought achingly to life on the Center REP stage. In 1965 Christopher Sergel, owner of Dramatic Publishing Company, obtained permission from Lee to do an adaptation that first opened in England in 1970. Since then the play has been widely produced with a yearly staging in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Center Reps’ production boasts a top-notch cast with the amazing Dan Hiatt in the lead role of Atticus Finch.

The youngsters are tomboy Scout Finch (Olivia Lowe), her brother Jem (Danny Christensen) and visiting distant neighbor boy Dill (Hunter Milano). In the book, the story is told through the words of Scout and expanded through the eyes of brother Jem and Dill. In this version, the narrator is Scout as an adult (Suzanne Irving) who weaves in and out of the action unobtrusively mingling with and at times taking part in the story. It is a stirring denunciation of Southern racial injustice in the 1930s. Tom Robinson (Joseph Ingram) a black man is falsely accused of raping a white girl named Mayella Ewell (Lina Makdisi). The white privileged townsfolk of Maycomb, Alabama feared “a nightmare was upon them” as anti-black fervor became rampant. When Atticus is asked and accepts to defend Tom, he and his children are treated as pariahs.

The secondary story involves the children’s fascination with the mysterious withdrawn neighbor Boo Radley (Henry Perkins). At the trial Mayella and her uneducated and violent father Bob Ewell (James Hiser) perjure themselves only to be discredited by Atticus but the all male jury finds Tom guilty. Vengeful Bob Ewell, in a drunken rage attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween night and is killed by the gentle reclusive Boo.

Dan Hiatt gives a solid performance placing a distinctive stamp on the role. In the version that Butler has elected to use, Suzanne Irving as the narrator moves gracefully in and out of the limelight adding depth to the story line without intruding on actors moving about her. Olivia Lowe as Scout has a ring of truth and Danny Christensen as Jem almost matches her ability. However, among the children, it is the little scene stealer Hunter Milano who received the most applause at the curtain call. If this were a movie Lina Makdisi as Mayella would earn an Oscar for her truly brilliant short time in the witness box. James Hiser as Bob Ewell exudes venom and is someone you would not want to meet in an ally on a dark night. Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia played with dignity by Allison L. Payne speaks the line that gives the title to the book. “Mockingbirds don’t eat anyone’s garden, nor do they do any other harm and that to kill one would be an outright sin.”

Melpomene Katakalos’s minimalist set of raked wooden planks stretching from the apron to curve gently on the rear stage is ingenious and allows the free movement of wooden railings and folding chairs into various positions signifying changes in venue.