Sweet Drone Alabama

Of all the theatrical hams that have wandered across the stage of American pop culture -- from the late-career John Barrymore to, say, Joan Rivers and Jim Belushi -- none have endeared themselves as much as the tiny shank bone that wanders home atop the legs of Scout Finch near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. A minor player in a school pageant celebrating the agricultural products of Maycomb, Alabama, 1935, this papier-mache wardrobe item signals the stage debut of Harper Lee's heroine, who, in the celebrated 1960 novel, realizes that her father can't save the world.

More importantly, the ham scene pinpoints the moment in Lee's story in which Southern prejudice results in insidious violence. Through the crude peepholes of her costume, Scout -- who is walking home through a dark woods after the school play -- sees a racist thug attack her brother. Or, rather, she nearly does. Her costume -- thank God for country hams -- saves her from assault and obscures exactly what happens to brother Jem. (As Mockingbird fans know, Jem and Scout are saved by the mysterious Boo Radley, the character who in the 1962 film launched Robert Duvall's film career). Suffice it to say, Scout's big night at the theater -- thank God for school pageants -- not only saves her life, it enlarges her existence beyond anything she could ever have anticipated.

Unfortunately no epiphany is forthcoming in the stodgy and ill-conceived stage adaptation of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a production of which is now bruising the stage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. By the time the ham costume makes its appearance late in Act Two, most of the audience has, like Scout before her curtain call, probably drifted off to sleep. Blame this disaster on adapter Christopher Sergel, who seems to have inhaled Horton Foote's screenplay for the movie only to regurgitate the most superficial aspects of it. It's not enough, for example, to retell one of the most cherished stories in American literature by merely having the characters of Scout, Jem, their father Atticus, and others march across the stage in the chronological order of their introduction in Lee's narrative.

After all, who doesn't remember the aching nostalgia that infuses Lee's story, in which Scout spends the summer watching her widowed father, an attorney, defend a black man accused of raping a white woman? Lee's novel transcends generations, less for its reading of bigotry in America than its ability to capture the way a child perceives the world. And yet the courtroom scenes -- in which Atticus categorically proves that his client Tom Robinson could not have inflicted some of the injuries on the bruised and battered Mayella Ewell -- are, thanks to the film, Hollywood gold.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird too safe for modern audiences? If familiarity were the enemy of drama, then every story would be performed only once. Sitting through the Sergel adaptation -- a coproduction of New Brunswick, New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater, and the Coconut Grove Playhouse -- I was stunned by how few surprises lurk in the show. Theatergoers know that it's possible to sit through a dozen different productions of, say, The Glass Menagerie and -- during the great stagings -- still feel the air sucked out of the room when an actor delivers an already-anticipated line. No, the catch here is that Sergel -- who also wrote adaptations of Up the Down Staircase and Cheaper by the Dozen -- hasn't figured out how to untie the story from Lee's narrative and stage it so that it has a compelling dramatic arc.

Indeed, if you're an audience member who's not familiar with the novel or film, you're likely to be completely lost. Confronted with one low-key scene in which the sheriff drops by and asks Atticus to take the rape case, it's impossible to glean what Scout means when she says that, at that moment, her life and the lives of her family members were irrevocably changed. Without knowledge of the book or film, there's no telling what's at stake. Lost is Lee's indelible tying together of the story's three threads: the children's fascination with mysterious neighbor Boo Radley, their experience of the Robinson court case, and their reevaluation of Atticus in a less idealized light.

For these revelations, we have to rely on visits from the adult Scout, who drops in from time to time, introducing scenes and commenting on the setups. This device is an attempt to capture the book's structure, in which Scout tells the story in flashbacks, and it's the only feature of the adaptation that works. Never mind that actress Suzanna Hay, who plays the adult Scout, is a tad more effervescent and sunny than the Scout of the book. (Let's not forget that Lee, the prototype for Scout, is the woman who, in real life, accompanied Truman Capote to Kansas when he was writing In Cold Blood.) And never mind that the narration itself points up Lee's frequent lapses into sentimentality and unabashed nostalgia. "Somehow it was hotter then," Scout says of her childhood. "Black dogs suffered on hot days."

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