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."
As a result this production of Mockingbird is essentially a radio play, narrated by Hay and sloppily punctuated by director Thomas Bullard. In some cases he seems to have instructed the cast to copy the mannerisms of the actors in the movie. Note to Will Stutts, who plays Atticus: Forget all the business that Gregory Peck does with his horn-rimmed glasses just before he shoots the mad dog. Show us how your Atticus behaves. A bigger hurdle is the way the children come across. Although all three are poised young performers (particularly Charlie Saxton's Dill, a pint-sized Orson Welles in suspenders), none captures the audience's focus for more than a moment. Their performances are rushed, and that's unfortunate. At the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird is the relationship between Scout and the audience.
If she's elusive in the first half of the play, Scout virtually disappears in the second act. Here the trial takes center stage, and the children are eclipsed by the gratuitous dialogue of the courtroom. Stutts is an intriguing actor, but he's entirely miscast. He's supposed to be a tower of respectability and reserve, not a warm puppy. As the Ewells, the poor-white-trash family that uses Tom Robinson to deflect its own ugly behavior, Michael George Owens and Janine Cogelia display almost every cliche of drooling and twitching Southerners ever conceived. Cogelia, at least, infuses Mayella Ewell with down-to-the-roots emotion. But Owens' Bob Ewell is a cartoon. He's evil enough as written; we don't need to see him foam at the mouth, too.
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Tom Robinson is more icon than character. He could be played by a scarecrow, especially since Anthony Jones doesn't give him any new qualities. As for Keith Jochim's Boo Radley, he's a cipher, which is fine. Suzanna Hay's adult Scout is the emotional center of the production. But without a young Scout to hang a heartfelt tale on, all of the antibigotry speeches, the diatribes against ignorance, and the pathos for the falsely accused Tom Robinson in this production don't add up to a ham bone.
oSUBHED o Stage Whispers
It's official. The Florida Stage, in Manalapan, was just awarded a $100,000 grant from Theatre Communications Group and the Pew Charitable Trust. The grant will allow the theater to bring in nationally known freelancer Benny Sato Ambush as director-in-residence. Ambush's mission is to guide the theater's multicultural initiative, which appropriately got something of a kick in the pants this past April when Ambush directed A Park in Our House by Cuban-American Nilo Cruz. With that production Florida Stage became the first theater to bring the work of the Miami-bred -- but nationally noticed -- playwright to South Florida.
Here's hoping that Sato exerts some of his influence on the Florida Stage's play roster. The theater, generally ambitious, sophisticated and forward-looking in its selection, is presenting a new season of four Florida premieres beginning this fall. While it's always great to see new works, the schedule -- featuring plays by Michael T. Folie (The Adjustment), Steven Dietz (Rocket Man), Doug Wright (Quills), and William Mastrosimone (Tamer of Horses) -- exclusively features, um, white men. Spread some of that multiculturalism around, please.
To Kill a Mockingbird.
Adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee's book. Directed by Thomas Bullard. Starring Suzanna Hay, Mianna Saxton, Will Stutts, Charlie Saxton, Anthony Jones, Michael George Owens, Janine Cogelia, and Keith Jochim. Through June 7. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami, 305-442-4000.