MADISON, NJ - There’s no question that Harper Lee’s beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a book that has resonated with adults and youngsters ever since it was first published in 1960.
The movie, too, with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as young Scout, captured the imagination of theatre goers. So when it comes to stage productions, you can’t help but wonder if some of that magic will be lost.
But the magic is there in powerful performances at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. Brent Harris as the lawyer, Atticus Finch, is so compelling, especially in the courtroom scene, that you are stunned and, perhaps, in tears, as he challenges the jury to see a man accused of raping a white woman, not as a Negro, but as a human being, innocent of the charges against him.
This story, that is unafraid to say “nigger” or “Negro,” not only speaks to that time, but to our own slanted views as well. There’s always the temptation to point the finger, to accuse whoever is different or threatening to the status quo. This message rings true in this production, without clichés. Yes, there’s a homespun quality in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be transported to the days when life was “simple” and “black and white?”
The children in the play, Emmanuelle Nadeau of Westfield as Scout, Frankie Seratch as Jem and Ethan Haberfield as Dill are all ‘pros’ in their stage presence and believability. Nadeau has the impudence, yet the yearning to understand, that are imbedded in this play. Occasionally her voice doesn’t carry when she faces upstage, but she is always completely in character and believable.
The grownup Scout, Nisi Sturgis as Jean Louise Finch, is the linchpin for the entire production. She is both narrator and interpreter as she recalls her childhood and the influence of her father in her tight knit community. Sturgis was seen as Rose in “I Capture the Castle,” among other credits at The Shakespeare Theatre.
James Michael Reilly, another Shakespeare regular, is fine as Sheriff Heck Tate. When he tells Atticus how he should view the death of Bob Ewell late in the play, his strength of character comes through. Reilly has often played the fool or comedic roles on this stage, so this is an engaging change of pace.
Summit resident Chase Newhart as Judge Taylor conveys the balanced authority needed in the courtroom scene. Well, everyone in the cast is exceptional, from Maureen Sillman’s compassionate neighbor Miss Maudie to Marjorie Johnson’s no-nonsense Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper who has helped raise the children. Conan McCarty, probably the least ‘likeable’ person in the cast, as Bob Ewell, clearly portrays the sly, devious nature of a prejudiced man. Alexis Hyatt as Mayella Ewell is more pathetic than coy, but she too shows a feisty spirit.
None of this would have happened without Joe Discher’s brilliant direction. He makes the crowd scene seem threatening and the courtroom scene abuzz with emotion. Anita Tripathi Easterling is the scenic designer, subtly shifting the Finch’s front porch and the Radley ominous doorway to the outside of a jail and, later, a courtroom with its tall windows and balcony. Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting helps us imagine the scary walk home after the Halloween production at the school and Maggie Dick’s costumes reflect the limits of the south, pre air-conditioning, from Atticus rumpled suit to Scout’s overalls.
There’s a lot to love in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a constant reminder that each of us can strive for the integrity we see in Atticus Finch, to look at others as individuals who have feelings just like we do.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” continues at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University in Madison, through Nov. 20. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.