Tuesday, April 22, 2014

To Kill A Mockingbird at Albuquerque Little Theatre

"Don't you say 'Hey' to me, you ugly girl." -- Mrs. Dubose, "To Kill A Mockingbird"
During the course of events, Jean Louise Finch points out that "baby steps" are being taken toward the future in the South, and the story of Tom Robinson is -- as tragic as it is -- one small step toward redemption.

We saw Albuquerque Little Theatre/Mother Road Theatre Company production of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" (adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel) on Easter Sunday, and somehow it apropos for the season and for the day.

I've been pondering the production and its many strengths and flaws ever since.

The story is one of the iconic stories of the South, as strong as any that has come out of that hotbed of literary ferment. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel was published in 1960, the extraordinary motion picture from which the clip above was taken premiered in 1962. Ever since, "To Kill A Mockingbird" has been a perennial favorite of readers, theater-goers and movie fans around the world.

We've seen "To Kill A Mockingbird" once before on stage, at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, California, perhaps 20 years ago. It was a not particularly memorable experience for me for a number of reasons that had little to do with the production itself. Unfortunately, I remember so little of it, I can't use it as a comparison.

Albuquerque Little Theatre is an institution in the Duke City, one of the foundational theater companies in town -- if not actually the first community theater in Albuquerque (accounts vary) -- celebrating its 84th season this year. I've been involved with some of these historical community theaters over the years, and while I have a great deal of respect for them, they tend to become encrusted with... well, let's call it tradition which they can't break from without somehow destroying their essence.

I blame it on Eva Le Gallienne who founded the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York in 1924 (or thereabouts) thus triggering the notion of Civic Theaters -- as community based theatrical and cultural institutions -- throughout this great land of ours. The Civic Theater idea is clearly still alive in Albuquerque, for which I'd say 'Burqueños can be both grateful and a mite miffed. The strength of the City's Civic Theater, ALT, has meant that professional theater has had a somewhat lower profile than it might otherwise have had -- especially given the remarkably active and vibrant screen and television production schedules in the region. Consequently, in New Mexico, while I'm aware of a few professional theaters (or maybe just one company that performs in many venues), most of the professional actors and directors work on stage under the community/civic theater concept.

Albuquerque Little Theatre performs in an iconic building designed by New Mexico's premiere architect, John Gaw Meem, and built by the WPA in 1935, opening in 1936. It was, they say, the first WPA project in Albuquerque, and I must say that despite its significant age (and only slight remodeling over the years, slight but not very judicious), it's quite a handsome and comfortable performance venue all things considered. I will have more to say about the staging of the play, however, which indicates the director didn't take into consideration all the limitations of the hall...

The stunning historical-deco mural painted on the entrance front of the building by Dorothy Stewart is no longer visible due to one of those injudicious remodelings. I imagine that given the fact that the mural depicts a battle between Christians and Moors derived from a New Mexican play of ancient date, it was considered at one time to be a dubious depiction from a culturally sensitive perspective and was covered up. I think I read somewhere that it was actually destroyed, but I can't be certain any more...

At any rate, the building is surprisingly large (Albuquerque was quite a small town in 1935), and commodious. It looked to me like the capacity was close to four or five hundred what with the balcony and all, and Easter Sunday it was nearly full.  Our seats were on the far house right, fifth row, which presented some sightline challenges, as it meant that nothing that happened at the Finch house door or very much of what happened on the Finch porch was visible to my own self. This is something that could have been easily corrected, and in my view should have been, as the Finch porch and front door are some of the key locations of the play. To stage the play so that what happens there is invisible to any significant portion of the audience -- or to any of the audience at all -- is an indication that neither the director nor the set designer checked the sightlines of the house, and to me that is a major fault. The easy correction is to angle the Finch house porch and front door more toward the center of the stage (there appeared to be ample room on the setting to do so) and to have any cast members who perform on the Finch porch or at their front door cheat toward the center of the stage. Any number of alternative locations for the Finch place were possible on the stage as well...

More problematical, however, was the fact that the children were barely comprehensible through pretty much all of the play. If one was not already familiar with the story, one would be hard-pressed to understand much of what the children were seeing and learning, let alone what they were saying.

The three main child performers (Mackenzie L. Jarrell playing Scout Finch, Traeton Pucket playing her brother Jem, and Logan Smith playing their friend Dill, on summer vacation from his home in Meridian, Mississippi) were really quite good in that they knew their lines and staging perfectly, and they appeared to have good handles on their characters and an understanding of the play itself. The problem was that they were using Southern accents that were not natural to them, and their accents destroyed their diction to the point where what came out of their mouths was mostly mush, well chewed to be sure, but not identifiable as any known language.

The fact that apparently no one involved with the production noticed that the children could not be understood, and no one intervened to correct their diction -- or to have them drop the accent -- is almost beyond belief and makes me wonder if the principals were paying attention during rehearsals and the run to date.

If one knows the story, I suppose it's not such a great loss if the dialogue between the children and between the children and the adults is mostly lost. And for those who don't know the story, the narration of the grown up Jean Louise Finch (played by Mother Road Artistic Director Julia Thudium) fills in some of the missing pieces, but I, for one, was appalled that every time the children opened their mouths, 90% or so of their lines were lost. Both the sightline problems and the children's hideous diction are basic issues that should have been resolved in rehearsal. The production, after all, was cast last year, and there's been more than enough time to deal with these matters.

The diction problem was particularly curious given the fact that Atticus Finch, father to Scout and Jem, though no relation to Dill, did not have a Southern accent at all.  No, he did not, and he didn't need one. The issue is not the way the Finches talk -- although note is made during Tom Robinson's trial that Atticus does not speak the way the Ewells do nor the way many of the townspeople do. That is part of his character, after all, though his speech pattern and accent are not the issue. Seems to me that if Atticus doesn't have an accent, his children wouldn't necessarily have one, either. Given the fact that the children performing in the main roles were not accustomed to using a Southern accent I would have simply dropped their use of an accent so as to enable their lines to be understood by the audience.

Overall, the staging was serviceable but somewhat pedestrian in that the cast tended to line up to converse or declaim. The size of the stage actually permitted a good deal more varied blocking which could have been used to some interesting and varied effects (so long as those sightlines were kept in mind!)

The only other questionable aspect I would point to is that the actor playing Atticus (Christopher Atwood) tended to overplay rather than underplay his scenes, especially the trial scenes, and too often, he seemed to be rushing his lines rather than letting them play out and giving the audience an opportunity for the import of what he's saying to sink in. Taking a beat here and there for emphasis could really have helped, and lowering rather than raising his voice could have helped even more. I realize the size of the place may have been a primary consideration in how 'Big' the actors played their parts, but still... Harper Lee makes quite clear that Atticus's "way" was to soften rather than to raise his voice and to speak slowly and clearly rather than to rush.

The other actors -- especially Hakim Bellamy as Tom Robinson, and Yvonne Mangrum as Calpurnia -- did what I thought were outstanding jobs. Hakim Bellamy is Albuquerque's poet laureate who's apparently done quite a bit of acting, but this was the first time we'd seen him onstage. He was close to perfect in the role. Yvonne Mangrum also has an extensive stage and film resume, and it showed in her strength and assurance in the role of the Finch household's necessary and trusted servant.

What we saw, all in all, was well done and for the most part it was satisfying.

 That's one of the things about theater: the production can have all kinds of faults and yet still be an effective drama that moves an audience. And so it was with the Albuquerque Little Theatre's/Mother Road's "To Kill A Mockingbird."

I suppose one of the most remarkable things about it is that the story is as iconic a Southern story as has ever been written, and it celebrates "baby steps" of progress... But think about that "progress". The setting is rural Alabama, 1935. A "Negro boy," Tom Robinson -- who is married, with three children -- is accused of "crime" against a white woman, actually a teenaged girl, Mayella Ewell. The "good citizens" of the town (ie: white men) want him lynched and they try to accomplish that end, but Atticus Finch, Robinson's lawyer, and Atticus's daughter Scout prevent it. There is an actual trial of Tom Robinson -- which Atticus knows he will lose and says so. There was no way at the time for a jury -- an all white and all male jury, let it be known -- in the South to acquit a Negro of a "crime" against a white woman, no matter the facts and truth. Atticus's goal is not so much the acquittal of Tom Robinson, which he knows he cannot secure, but he vows that no matter what else happens, the truth will be known. He knows Tom Robinson is innocent without question. Atticus makes known the truth of his innocence at the trial.

Tom Robinson still must die, of course, for there is no way to gain his freedom in the South as it was, and he is shot while trying to escape from the prison farm while awaiting an appeal, an appeal which he knows he cannot win.

So what, exactly, are the "baby steps" here?

That Tom Robinson got a trial at all? That a prominent white attorney represented him? That an appeal of his conviction was lodged? That some white children learned to "wear another's skin?" Or that the truth was told in open court about what happened to Mayella Ewell -- that she had expressed her gratitude and even love to a black man, and that her father had been the one who beat and molested her?

Perhaps all of them together amounted to the "baby steps" Harper Lee was writing about. By 1935, lynching in this country was starting to fade out. In the South, it was largely due to activist (white) women engaged in anti-lynching crusades, town by town, person by person. By that time, thousands and thousands of Negroes had been lynched for crimes real and imagined, in a brutal terror campaign that had long sullied the reputation of the Solid South. Southern culture and peculiar ways? Well, if you want to call it that. But lynching was by no means confined to the South and its victims were by no means all black.

Lynching was a mob reaction common through much of the country and through much of its history. Practically anyone whose status was low enough could become a victim of lynch mobs, no matter where they lived or what their race.

It took herculean effort to overcome the mob reaction that led to lynching, and even now, it's far from extinct, though it is much more sublimated.

Tom Robinson stands for so many men and women -- and children, yes, children -- who were so cruelly used and died during the hey-day of Lynch-law in this country. We're still a long way from the ideals of dignity and justice that Tom and Atticus stand for and that Scout and Jem and Dill begin to learn during the course of the play.

But look how far we've come... and it is still a sin to kill a mockingbird.

[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning. -- last line of Harper Lee's novel...

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