When the artistic team at Geva Theatre Center selected Harper Lee's 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," as part of the 2015-16 season, they couldn't have known the lauded 90-year-old author would die the same weekend the show opened. Nor could they have foreseen the announcement this month that Aaron Sorkin is adapting the text for a 2016-17 Broadway opening.
But as the saying goes, "everything happens for a reason." After news of Lee's death spread on Friday, Geva announced they would dedicate the production run to her memory. Saturday's show sold out, and tickets will undoubtedly continue to go quickly throughout the month-long run.
Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set in 1930's Maycomb County, Alabama, a few years after the Great Depression took hold of the United States. While it's loosely autobiographical, Lee spent many years writing and editing a story that would best educate and serve her reader. The entire story is told through the eyes of Jean-Louise "Scout" Finch, who is 10 years old at the time of the novel's plot. The book deals with racial injustice in small town, Deep South, pre-Civil Rights America.
Anytime a stage play is adapted from a beloved book (which, in this case, was also almost immediately followed by the equally-beloved 1962 film starring Gregory Peck), there are going to be some standards that simply can't be met, for a variety of reasons: time, budget, and talent -- the list goes on. This particular version of "Mockingbird" was adapted by Christopher Sergel, who spent 20 years revising it for the stage -- and it's surprisingly true to the original plot.
At 17 people, the cast is sizeable, and there is some double casting due to the ages of the children in the story. (It should be noted that the children are Rochester residents, and casting for several of the show's roles, including Mayella Ewell, was conducted locally.) On Sunday night, the role of "Scout" Finch was played by Alden Duserick, who has appeared on Geva's stage several times before in "A Christmas Carol." She's a bright, adorable young actress with a genuine connection to the iconic character she portrays.
Her brother, Sawyer Duserick, who has also appeared before on stage at Geva, plays the odd, mischievous "Dill" Harris, a role inspired by Lee's real life, eccentric summertime neighbor Truman Capote. The Duserick siblings, paired with Nicholas Kinney ("Jem" Finch), are perhaps the most delightful part of the entire production, with their innocence, lilting Southern accents, and adventurous stage presence.
Now, let's get something out of the way before going any further: Geva Director of Education and Artist-in-Residence Skip Greer, who plays Atticus Finch in this production, is not Gregory Peck. Because of the close proximity of the 1960 novel and 1962 film, it's hard for many fans of "Mockingbird" to imagine anyone else as Atticus Finch. But even Gregory Peck, truly, was not Atticus Finch. If lovers of the classic movie are expecting to compare the Geva adaptation to the film, there will be some disappointment. Undoubtedly, Geva's Artistic Director, Mark Cuddy, who directs the show, thought of this many times, but he delivers a fresh take on many elements of the well-known story. Given the context of Atticus Finch's character, Greer performs the role truthfully and admirably. He has the patience, wisdom, and steely conviction of Finch.
The ensemble is strong throughout the show, notably SUNY Brockport student Sallie Koenig (Mayella Ewell) and School of the Arts graduate Lorenzo Parnell (Tom Robinson), who give the most riveting performances in act two. Bridget Markusfeld, who essentially plays the narrator as Jean Louise Finch, has a hefty responsibility to keep the dialogue going, but she also spends a lot of time on stage. Her steady, conversational performance provides a welcome connection for the audience.
Scenic and costume designer John Haldoupis took a bare stage of earthy colored, rotating panels and brilliantly dressed it with "tree trunks" constructed of a frothy fabric that resembles black tulle. The ceiling-high, drape-y trunks and silvery leaves invoke Spanish moss and dusky shadows of a Southern summer. Haldoupis also designed seamlessly mobile porches and stoop facades that roll on and off stage to represent the Finch, Radley, and DuBois homes. The second act opens with a courtroom, also mobile, complete with balcony so the children's reactions can be observed during the entire trial scene. Lighting by Paul Hackenmueller marries the elements, enhanced by Gregg Coffin's original compositions.
The masterful aesthetic of the show only stumbles in the area of Jean Louise Finch's costume, which emulates boxy outfits worn by "professional working women" on 1980's-era television shows. Since the character is almost constantly on stage, it's a blasé choice. On the other end of the costume spectrum is the teen chorus, who appear a tad slovenly with baggy sweatshirts and wrinkly jeans. The culturally linked hoodie reference in act two, while well intentioned, feels a bit heavy-handed in this production.But having a contemporary teen chorus -- all local students from School of the Arts -- is a neat take on the story, and adds another dimension to narrator Jean Louise's role.
Geva has created an honest, compelling tribute to Lee's classic story -- a tribute that audience members of all ages can enjoy and discuss long after the curtain closes.