Los Angeles Theater Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (The Production Company at the Lex in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on January 27, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Harper Lee’s 1960 story about lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of rape in 1935 Alabama, has lost none of its appeal. Although some have argued that many of the poor white Southerners and victimized black characters are one-dimensional (and that Atticus’ daughter, six-year-old Scout, narrates the book with the vocabulary of a Rhodes Scholar), it has never been out of print. Lee’s Southern Gothic poeticism, the examination of the Deep South’s caste system, and themes of racism and lost innocence still reverberate today. More powerful yet is that To Kill a Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman (or coming-of-age tale) in which children question, and are affected by, the world around them (the title refers to murdering that which is harmless).

to kill a mockingbird

This week, the estimable The Production Company begins a new season with an ambitious production of Christopher Sergel’s 1970 adaptation at the Lex Theatre, their new home in Hollywood. It is astounding how ultimately moving and sweet this Mockingbird is, given the cramped staging, Sergel’s melodramatic script, and some performances that are still finding their footing. T L Kolman’s direction lacks tension in Act I, but once the trial begins in Act II, an evening which veered close to mawkishness becomes emotionally riveting and well worth a visit.

to kill a mockingbird

Sergel’s script is packed with rich dialogue, but as with most melodramas, he often eschews dramatic structure for a world of heightened emotion and stock characters. Instead of fleshing out Bob Ewell, the man who falsely accuses Robinson, Sergel creates a nasty, wood-whittling, poor-white-trash, drunk stereotype; therefore, actor Skip Pipo’s earnest rendition comes off as more cartoonish than menacing. Also, Sergel makes a narrator out of Atticus’s kindly neighbor, Maudie Atkinson, played by the luminous and lovely Ferrell Marshall; she is assigned the duty of back-story and interpretation of Southern mores, both of which should have been dramatized. The poor actress is in a bind, for the narration on stage, unlike Scout’s narrative in the novel, serves to deflate and undermine the drama. (Plus, her house, as designed by August Viverito, also doubles (confusingly) as that of grumpy neighbor Mrs. DuBose (Barbara Gruen); my theater companion and I mistakenly believed that they lived in the same house.)

to kill a mockingbird

Melodrama also involves a hero who does what he can to right the balance of good and evil in a moral universe; fortunately Sergel writes a dimensional character in Atticus Finch and James Horan gives us a controlled and thoughtful performance. The courtroom scene showcases some triumphant acting: Lorenzo T. Hughes is restrained and emotional as Tom Robinson, and Margaret Dwyer perfectly embodies the awkward, conflicted and shaken Mayella Ewell (daughter of Bob). Sadly, David Stifel (and his out-of-place pony tail) excels at caricature mugging instead of being the exasperated Judge Taylor.

to kill a mockingbird Even though the part of the Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia was largely undeveloped in Sergel’s script, Inda Craig-Galván manages to give the most beautiful performance of the evening. If director T.L. Kolman’s staging is occasionally unfocused and lacks attention to detail, he does achieve a pinnacle of success with his three child actors: Brighid Fleming as Scout, L J Benet as her brother Jem, and, especially, Patrick Fitzsimmons as their new friend Dill (modeled after Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote).

Overall, The Production Company’s Mockingbird feels like community theater tinged with professionalism. I dare say, it seems like they bit off more than they could chew, but some misguided choices (and a script that should be destined only for high schools) are overshadowed by a satisfying emotional outcome and some wonderful performances in this earnest, loving and caring production.

photos by The Production Company

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Production Company
The Lex Theatre in Hollywood
ends on February 20, 2011
for tickets, visit The Prod Co

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