By Pat Robbennolt
Stupendous, wrenching, beautiful: These are the superlatives that come to mind as I reflect on experiencing To Kill A Mockingbird on the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse.
With folk tunes and old hymns, Daniel Black, Austin Price and John Dobbratz on mandolin, banjo and guitar create the ambience of rural Alabama in the thirties.
The children of the company are outstanding. Several youngsters alternate in playing the key roles. Scout, her older brother Jem and their friend Dill are complex characters. Emery Smith, from Pleasant Hill, gave an enchanting version of Scout on opening night. She is already embarrassed that her father is a lawyer. It becomes worse for Scout when her father begins to defend Tom Robinson, a Negro. She endures the horror of being tormented by her schoolmates. Yet, pride in her father wells up in her. She matures before our very eyes as she faces the reality that justice does not always triumph. Cookeville youngsters Sammy McKenzie and Emma Rhea Sells are two of the three who play Scout.
Eli Choate, from Cookeville, became Dill on opening night. I am certain Truman Capote must have looked and acted a lot like Choate in the days that he and Harper Lee shared their childhood. I hope to see Joe and Josh Norris on stage in the role.
Jayden Gabel gave a fine performance as Jem, the eldest child of lawyer Atticus Finch and the often-harried elder brother of Scout. Ransom Pryor alternates in the role. To me, Jem is a less defined character, making the role especially difficult to portray. A loyal son, seeking to find his own uniqueness, he strikes out in various directions. Anger leads him to tear up a garden and forces him to endure the punishment of reading to neighbor Mrs. Dubose, played alternately by Terri Ritter and Laura Kaluszka.
Britt Hancock, on stage is Atticus Finch, a brilliant lawyer and a single father, who cares deeply about his children and the values he hopes to nurture in them. He reminds the children: “conscience does not abide by majority rule.” He abhors rampant societal injustice. Atticus Finch is certain that Tom Robinson has been framed. His defense is studied and deliberate as he begs the jury to restore the defendant to his family. Michael Ruff portrays Tom Robinson with the hopelessness of the Negro man in that time and place.
Lindy Pendzick became the battered, bruised Mayella Ewell. Her face was badly disfigured. She was constantly scratching herself. She showed us the downtrodden, angry woman, resigned to being the brunt of the anger of her vicious father Bob Ewell. Caitlin Schaub alternates in the role of Mayella. Ruff shows Robinson with a gentle soul. He has seen the brutality endured by Mayella at the hands of her father as he has walked past their house.
The usually beloved Jason Ross is transformed into Bob Ewell, the brutal, vengeful father. His determination to prove the Negro responsible for the condition of his daughter is implacable. Bob Ewell is an uneducated braggart who has the right to treat his daughter as he wishes and the right to literally spit in the face of the defendant’s lawyer. Blaming a Negro is also his right. As he does with any role in which he is cast, Ross plays Bob Ewell to the hilt.
Greg Pendzick portrays Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor for the trial. The societal system is what it is. He will defend it to the best of his ability. Atticus Finch skillfully diminishes his arguments
Patty Payne as neighbor Maudie Atkinson portrays a caring woman doing her best to reach out to the children as well as seeking to understand the dynamics of the life swirling around her. She reminds us: “It is a sin to kill a mockingbird. All they do is sing their hearts out. They just make music. That is why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” She alone senses that life as it is being lived in Macon cannot go on. She muses hopefully, “Maybe we are taking a little step.”
Carol Irvin plays Stephanie Crawford, another neighbor who has little patience with the Finch children. She enjoys frightening Scout with the story of Boo Radley, who had not been seen in fifteen years. Scout knows that Boo (Quinn Cason) shares the neighboring house with his brother Nathan (Skip Ritter). The story terrifies her.
It is good to have Illeana Kirven back on stage. As Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper, she tries to instill some order in the lives of Scout and Jem. She is overworked, frustrated and loving. Her life as a member of the choir brings the respite she needs. Other members of this fine choir are Horace Smith, Quinn Cason, Joann Coleman, Donald Frison, Shirley Green, Betty Jackson, Joe Jenkins, Shaelynn Moore, Stephanie Nwandu, Chaz Sanders, and Britany Trimble. They bring the music of the time and place to underscore the both the setting and progression of the story.
For this production, there is a cast of 55. Eight of the roles are double cast. When not on stage in a speaking role, the adults and children who are double cast move seamlessly into the ensemble. Bob Johnson and Dan Young share the role of Sheriff Heck Tate. Dick Disseler and Bob Ochsenrider play Judge Taylor with equal ease. Other cast members essential to the ensemble are: Holly Bynum, Cally Copeland, Madyson Green, Rachel Marie Hatchett, Madison Hicks, Madison Lee, Tana McDonald, Sammy McKenzie, Shaylin Morgan, Trey Norrod, Michael Richerson, Tavannah Roysden, Charles Sheldon, Bailey Smith, Brooklyn Smith, Baylee Stone, Bryanne Thacker, Raychal Tinch, and Brittany Trimble.
The multi-talented Jim Crabtree has used his skills as a director to bring this classic story into a new light. Nicole Begue-Hackmann served as his assistant and music director. Scenic artist Julie Barnhardt studied photos and verbal memories of the set designed by Crabtree for the Playhouse production in 1992. She has added her own vision. I encourage you to order tickets, attend this production, no matter how many times you have seen the movie or read the book. Upon entering the theater, you will be struck by the haunting quality of the scenic design.
I close with Jim Crabtree’s words from the program: “The world seems ever divided, in conflict over differences in heritage, culture, religion, tradition, custom and race. And as Scout and Atticus say at the end, it again reminds us that most people are ‘really nice, once you finally see them.’ May Harper Lee’s story, and Chris Sergel’s dramatization of it, help us all find the grace and tolerance to see, and hear one another — and respect the differences among us.”