‘Mockingbird’ courtroom drama at Theatre Charlotte examines racism

Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1961. In 1963, Horton Foote won the Academy Award for writing the screenplay for the film version starring Gregory Peck. Christopher Sergel’s 1970 dramatization at Theatre Charlotte falls short of its predecessors.

It’s 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama, “a tired old town,” according to protagonist Scout Finch. She’s 6, her brother Jem is 10, and their summer takes a turn for the better when straight-talking 6-year-old Dill comes to stay nearby with his aunt. The Finch kids run a bit wild for the neighbors’ taste. Their mom died when Scout was 2, and they are cared for by strident Calpurnia, whose “hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.” Despite that discipline, Scout is a consummate tomboy who would rather be heard than seen.

They see their father, lawyer Atticus Finch, as old and absent. He’s the distracted professorial type, his head always in a book. When Tom Robinson, a local black man, is accused of raping white Mayella Ewell, Atticus is appointed to defend Robinson.

In the book an older Scout, now known as Jean Louise Finch, introduces the story. On paper, this narrative choice is unobtrusive. On stage, it’s an unnecessary distraction. That’s not the fault of the actor; the tale triumphs when it is being shown, rather than told. The playwright errs in his assumption that the audience needs further explanation to understand the story.

The courtroom drama is the heart of the production. Devin Clarke captures the essence of Tom Robinson. He is sympathetic, honorable, and scared. It’s excellent casting, as is Tiffany Huntley as Mayella Ewell, eldest child of a disreputable white family. Her self-righteous defiance is inexcusable, yet she solicits a bit of compassion.

Scout, played by Ailey Finn (who will turn 12 during this production), is sassy and precocious, with a stage presence beyond her years. Will Giannuzzi nails the role of Scout’s male counterpart, Dill. Dave Blamy’s Atticus brings Lee’s words to life in the courtroom scene and is the consummate straight man, which gives the rest of the cast the opportunity to shine. Bob Paolino is also notable as the despicable Bob Ewell, Mayella’s cruel father.

Set designer Chris Timmons crams too much on stage, which interrupts the willing suspension of disbelief. A subplot centers on mysterious Boo Radley, whom the children have never seen. His house, shadowed by oaks and surrounded by a broken picket fence, is supposed to be just close enough to the Finch house to fascinate the children. In this performance, Scout could jump from her tire swing (a nice touch) onto Boo’s porch. There’s no mystery at all.

Director Charles LaBorde makes creative use of the theater by having actors enter through the audience, though the final scene would be more effective if the action remained offstage until the end. “To Kill a Mockingbird” explores the subtleties of bravery and the intricacies of community. It is also a timely reminder of how far we have and have not come in the struggle for racial equality.