REVIEW: Mill Town Players Land a Striking Staging of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

Hiram Means, Carver Means, Reed Halvorson and Adelle Mackey in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Photo by Escobar Photography.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

A staple of American high school literature class, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” now comes to vivid light and shadow in the Mill Town Players’ new striking and ever-so-timely stage adaptation of this cherished 1960 novel.

Set in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is based on an actual event from Lee’s childhood: an African-American man charged with sexual assault of a white woman. Tasked with defending Tom Robinson (Brian Reeder) is local attorney and state legislator Atticus Finch (played by Reed Halvorson).

The novel is told through the eyes of Finch’s young daughter Scout (played here by the rambunctious Adelle Mackey), but Christopher Sergel takes a different tact in his adaption by incorporating all of the action under the gaze of neighbor and narrator Miss Maudie, portrayed with steadfast calm and in a grounded maternal voice of reason by Upstate actor Anne Robards (in her MTP debut).

Life’s harsh realities and lessons in this coming-of-age tale are confronted by Scout, her brother Jem (Carver Means) and their petite friend, Dill (Hiram Means), who was modeled after Lee’s childhood pal Truman Capote. The playmates spend their days coercing their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley (Jason Masters) to come outside and sneak into the courtroom by watching the proceedings from the balcony, reserved for the “colored” citizens.

This production, handsomely directed by Christopher Rose, who has found his niche in the classic repertoire including last season’s award-winning “Of Mice and Men,” features a very large cast for a play and there are several notable standouts.

Of course, Halvorson is an exceptional leading man in the role that won Gregory Peck an Oscar in the film version. Halvorson embodies Atticus Finch with utmost humility and skill, particularly in the courtroom when he is so convincing and adept, one would think he had gone to law school.

Reeder, in back-to-back MTP shows after the pop-rock music show “California Dreamin’, ” is primarily known as a comedic actor. However, he is no stranger to racially-tinged courtroom drama after playing Carl Lee Hailey in “A Time to Kill” some three years ago at Centre Stage. Though in that story, he actually did the crime, but for good reason. Here, Reeder lends subtle authenticity to the accused Tom Robinson, a poor uneducated black man with the odds stacked against him, and it’s difficult to not to believe his testimony.

Mayella Ewell (Kat Bates with disheveled hair and the plainest of a frock) is wonderfully defiant as Tom’s accuser. And Jeff Perkins makes an impressive debut as the despicable villain Bob Ewell, the town drunk and father of Mayella, who disrupts the court proceeding several times after Atticus impugns his credibility, as well as his daughter’s.

Also, a joy to watch is Beverly Clowney as Calpurnia, Scout and Jem’s nanny and the closest semblance of a mother figure in their home. Her acting is absolutely priceless in one scene when she has to warn the neighbors of a possible rabid “Mad dog!” roaming the neighborhood. Kudos, Bev!

The story takes place on the streets of  Maycomb and in the courtroom and scenic designer Jayce Tromsness accomplishes both settings with a clever series of doors, windows  and railings that, in different contexts, serve as both locales. And kudos as well for the outstanding backdrop of trees that look like a matte painting from “Gone With the Wind” and the mockingbird motif around the proscenium. Scenic painting is by Abby Brown.

There is also one moment of sheer brilliance in theatrical magic that deserves accolades for lighting designer John King. Just before the climax, Ms. Robards is describing one fateful evening when a storm approaches and then the lights eloquently and  slowly dwindle to complete blackout.  You really have to see it to believe it. Hats off to Mr. King!

Also in the cast are Nancy Burkard, Debbie Chambers, Ed Chambers, Al Chastain, Rachel Hawks, John King, Ken Kraft, Al Means, John Gregory Middleton, Clark E. Nesbitt, and Mary Katherine Sosebee.

My only minor complaint about this production was that though the trio of young actors are all remarkable, it was sometimes difficult to hear/understand them, as well as some of the off-stage dialogue in a couple of segments.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” continues Thursdays-Sundays through April 8 at the historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby Street in Pelzer. Tickets are $10. Call the Box Office at (864) 947-8000 or visit www.miltownplayers.org.

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