The bar is set impossibly high for the stage play of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee and the Oscar-winning film are each among the most popular and highly praised in the history of American film and literature.
Playwright Christopher Sergel took on the challenge of adapting “Mockingbird” for the stage, and Olympia’s Harlequin Productions is now running it under the direction of Linda Whitney with three outstanding child actors supported by a large cast of some of Southwest Washington’s finest.
Eight-year-old Loren Kattenbraker plays Scout, the loveable central character in the book and movie. She is amazingly expressive and a joy to watch.
Nick Hayes, a seventh-grader who has appeared on every stage in the Olympia area and even in “Oklahoma” at Seattle’s prestigious 5th Avenue Theater, is Scout’s big brother Jem. His performance is near flawless.
Fifth-grader Annabelle Samson plays Charles Baker Harris, aka Dill, and she is delightful. Samson also played a girl pretending to be a boy in Olympia Family Theater’s “Orphan Train.”
All three of these kids are terrific.
To say all that should be said about the rest of the cast would take twice the space I’m allowed for the column. Aaron Lamb is solid and believable as Atticus Finch. Scott C. Brown nails the role of Sheriff Heck Tate. (He confessed to this reviewer, who grew up in Mississippi, that he was unsure of getting the Southern accent right. His accent is perfect.) Helen Harvester turns in a performance as the emotionally crippled Mayella Ewell that is worthy of a Tony Award, and Russ Holmes, a longtime favorite of Harlequin audiences, pulls off one of his best performances ever as Bob Ewell. Comedian and actor Morgan Picton shows just what a great actor he can be in the challenging roles of the public prosecutor and as Boo Radley. (If he were not the only bald actor on stage, nobody would suspect these two characters are played by the same actor.) David Wright also does a superb job of playing two quite different characters, the poor farmer Walter Cunningham and Judge Taylor. And Robert Humes puts his heart into a heart-wrenching portrayal of the falsely accused Tom Robinson.
Rounding out this terrific cast and each performing at the top of their game are Edsonya Charles, Ann Flannigan, Korja Giles, Walayn Sharples and DuWayne Andrews.
In adapting the story for the stage, Sergel made the dubious choice of having the neighbor, Maudie Atkinson (Flannigan), narrate the story, which in the book and movie was done by Scout. Maudie is a wonderful character, likeable and a rare voice of reason in a town full of bigots and ignoramuses. But her narration was unnecessary, serving only to moralize and slow down the flow of the story. Likewise, Sergel’s decision to freeze the action during the mesmerizing court scene for a little scene with Scout and Dill disrupted the story in a way that added nothing.
One other thing that marred an otherwise marvelous play was overdoing the dumb-Southern-hick bit in the scene where the townsmen are intent on lynching Tom Robinson. They turned a frightening scene into a comic parody of stereotypical rednecks. Fortunately, Scout stepped up to talk one-on-one with the lynch-mob leader and turned the scene into one of the most touching in the play.
The set by Jeannie Beirne captures the feel of 1930s Maycomb, Georgia, in a beautifully stylized fashion and allows for complicated set changes with actors moving pieces in full view of the audience in such a way that is not at all distracting. Costumes by Darren Mills are authentic, and Amy Chisman’s lighting is wonderful.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 12.
Where: State Theater, 202 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia.
Show notes: The play is 2½ hours long with a 20-minute intermission. It includes mature content and racially charged language.
Tickets: Tickets: $32, $29 for military and seniors, $20 for students and those 24 and younger. Discounted rush tickets are available a half-hour prior to curtain.
Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org.