Sunday, March 23, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird Finds Power and Grace Through Empathy

By K. Michael Moore
photos by Len Struttman

the children watch Atticus (Scot Hughes) at work
Cedar Rapids - I have a confession to make. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and I paid it very little mind. Perhaps you are the same. For me, back then, Harper Lee’s carefully crafted morality tale, her poignant and innocent translation of the ugliness – and the greatness – inside us all, slipped past my adolescent mind in lieu of thoughts of girls, homework, a crappy after-school job. Bad me. Fortunately, Theatre Cedar Rapids has given me another chance with its current stage production of Lee’s classic.

Mockingbird is set in the Deep South during the Depression. Events of major import occur, and, as an audience, we see them and process them through the bifocal lens of young Scout (Zoey Akers) as she learns of them, and, simultaneously, through the reminiscent voice of Scout as an adult (Jean Louise Finch, played by Marty Norton), who serves as the piece’s narrator, weaving in and out of scenes, smoothly moving us forward in a story that is at once a coming of age tale and a social morality tale. As Scout, her brother Jem (Jaden Henley), and their oddball buddy Dill (Augie Charipar) play, scuffle, and trick their way through the story, they stumble in and out of people’s lives, coming face-to-face with issues such as poverty, racism, mental illness, addiction, and mob mentality, to name but a few.

Zoey Akers makes a wonderfully rambunctious Scout, quick to fight other children, eternally inquisitive and yet perfectly sweet. Each moment she comes to ask her father, Atticus Finch (Scot Hughes), one of her many difficult questions, her physicality and vocal control convey a timid, yet innocent hope for the world and a need to understand its complexities. Her delicate touch when asking questions of adults works perfectly throughout the play, always just a little too close to the person she’s speaking to, often nervously weaving right to left - most especially during the famous “mob” scene outside the jail, where she sidles up to Walter Cunningham, Sr. (Duane Larson), and reminds him that he is still a good man. Akers also delivers Scout’s quippy lines well, catching the audience by surprise just when a laugh or a chuckle is needed.

(l-r) Jaden Henley as Jem, Zoey Akers as Scout,
Augie Charipar as Dill
Jaden Henley’s portrayal of Jem Finch is charming to watch as well, a bit larger than life, which suits the cusp-of-adulthood issues the character faces. Henley’s Jem is at once a child, sulking by the old tree, and the near-man, protecting his sister, challenging his father, and learning to walk the tricky paths of life. In my personal opinion, Jem has some of the funniest lines in the script, and Henley lands them well.

Dill is the character that dares Jem and Scout into many of their misadventures. Constantly thinking, a fountain of ideas and practical jokes. Augie Charipar plays up this fae-like trait, drawing the audience in with him as he hatches plots and weaves outlandish stories. This is one of the most difficult child parts I have seen on stage, a character reputed to be based on Harper Lee’s own relationship with Truman Capote. Charipar displays the zest, quirky humor and boundless thoughts of a Capote-like child with a sense of ease and comfort.

Hughes as Atticus Finch, Michael Range as Tom Robinson
Atticus Finch is a famous literary character, and I would do little justice to an attempt to dissect him. Scot Hughes portrays him admirably, if perhaps with a bit too much emotional distance. Hughes gives us all of the charisma and keen moral fiber of Atticus, showing us his struggle to remain true in the face of injustice, while raising his children to be good people. In addition, Hughes delivers Atticus’ lessons to his children carefully and meaningfully, without making the audience feel lectured. The character is given a number of “Father Knows Best” style speeches, which can sometimes become tired to a modern audience. Hughes’ attention to this potential “actor trap” keeps the audience with him throughout the show. And, because of this care, these are the lines that stick with me most when leaving the theatre. We, the audience, want Hughes, as Atticus, to win his important trial, though we know he won’t. Yet, he demonstrates with subtlety that he has already won the most important battle.

The rest of this large cast rounds out admirably, with special mention to the performances of david e. hein as the ogre-ish Bob Ewell, Larry Hansen as a lovably gruff and perhaps bumbling Sherriff Tate, and Bryant Duffy as the famous Boo Radley. Duffy, in fact, brings a charming awkwardness to this iconic character, seen onstage at intervals but speaking for a scant few lines. Duffy’s deliberate physicality endows the character with an almost Edward Scissorhands-like elegance, discomforting and yet sympathetic. His very few lines are delivered with a deep connection to a character whose legend often overcasts his complexity and true humanity.

Director (and TCR Artistic Director) Leslie Charipar lends a gentle hand at the helm, allowing each of her actors to show us their world in their own method. In her director’s notes, she discusses the importance of empathy, not only within the context of the play, but in our everyday relations and society. It is precisely that type of empathy – not only for the characters but for the actors and audience – that Charipar gives to this production most successfully.

The production is underscored by Jim Kropa’s sound design, which is perfectly themed, and at every moment blended so smoothly into the action that it becomes a character in and of itself. Set design and scenic art by Derek Easton and Daniel Kelchen respectively, were likewise subtle and well executed, providing a window into the world of Scout and Jem before a single person lands on stage. The famous tree between the Finch and Radley homes is especially impressive.

In all, Harper Lee’s classic story isn’t just about race. It isn’t about the Depression, or coming of age or mental illness. It’s about people. It’s about how we understand each other, and whether we will choose the courage to be true to what is right, to understand the other person’s perspective before fighting for or demanding our own view point. It is about growing up: not the physical growth from child to adult; rather, the emotional growth – the empathy and moral fiber to stand against injustice, give to those who need, understand someone else’s world without judgment. TCR’s production of Mockingbird not only understands this idea, but embraces it; it presents the heart-warming power of this story not only with a clear understanding but with the empathy to know each member of the audience may receive it differently, and the respect for each of us to handle it according to our own world view.

On a personal note, opening night of this production also coincided with the United Way of East Central Iowa’s 100th Anniversary campaign, a joint event between TCR and UW. Consider contributing time and or/money to this amazing social improvement organization.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs on TCR’s main stage through April 12th. See for ticket information.

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