Singing in the dead of night

Updated with a multiethnic cast, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still packs a punch

FBy Beth Nawrocki

For 25 years, the Great American History Theatre has fashioned plays exemplifying the American experience, and their current production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” continues that tradition in a nontraditional way. This is the theater’s seventh time performing Harper Lee’s southern classic, and the seventh time it has showcased Stephen D’Ambrose’s performance as Atticus Finch.

Director Ron Peluso’s vision places the audience in the seats of a 1935 Alabama jury. Atticus directly addresses the audience as if they held the fate of defendant Tom Robinson, played by Tyrone Lewis, in their hands. Peluso also modernizes the focal issue to one which is more than merely black and white. The town sheriff is Latino and the young woman Robinson allegedly raped is Asian. Although Atticus Finch is white and his client is black, Peluso’s multicultural interpretation modifies the central theme.

The simple set incorporates a raised, empty stage and peripherally-placed, plain wooden chairs to which the actors retire when they are not performing. Such transitioning allows the whole cast to be involved at all times even when their characters are not part of the particular scene. When not onstage, however, the actors appear disengaged from their characters.

“Offstage” performers become props. During a mob scene, they wave flashlights to simulate car headlights. Redneck bigot Bob Ewell, performed by Christopher Carlson, becomes a tree by holding up a branch. Several performers assume multiple roles. A character change is identified by a headpiece change. Carolyn Goelzer is given the challenge of wearing the most “hats.” She plays the narrator, Miss Maudie, Mrs. Dubose and the Judge. This contributes to a confusing and busy stage.

However, you can’t beat a good story. Although the early part of the production is a bit slow and the audience is trying to remember if Christopher Sergel’s adaptation stays true to Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, the trial scene during the first act is captivating and passionately acted. Unctuous prosecuting attorney Mr. Gilmer, played by Chinese-American Zachary Drake, perfectly counters the lightly hued Atticus Finch, furthering the director’s theme of ethnic diversity. D’Ambrose’s presence is reminiscent of the role immortalized by Gregory Peck. D’Ambrose’s Atticus is calming and sympathetic when his children, Jem and Scout (Josh Kowitz and Chloe Jensen) are quick to attack those who criticize their father.

Atticus’s closing argument is more than a plea for Robinson’s life; it is a plea for the audience to remember that, although times have changed, the struggle continues. The presentation is cleverly directed to the “jury” to make the right decisions when racial injustice arises. His statements are highlighted by bringing the full focus upon D’Ambrose. The lights are lowered to create a dream-like atmosphere, and the rest of the cast is isolated in shadow, generating a one-to-one conversation between Atticus and each audience member.

Peluso articulates the “Mockingbird” journey. To Kill a Mockingbird takes us into the world of our segregated past and reminds us how far we have come. Sadly, we still have a long way to travel.” Even though there are moments of confusion as Peluso tries to balance artistic simplicity with complicated contrivances, the play always emphasizes the enduring need for racial tolerance.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” plays through March 16 at the Great American History Theatre, (651) 292-4323.