Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

Mockingbird’s third time is now – whichever now in which you happen to encounter it – and this particular now in which we’re living begins to seem more and more like a throwback to the Mockingbird milieu of the 1960s and the 1930s. After decades of seeming advancement we are battling a rear-guard onslaught of naked racism, an emboldening of fear and violence, and, well, who wouldn’t want an Atticus Finch to stand up in the courtroom of current events and state the plain and simple truth, backing down the opportunists and hypocrites and giving us at least a fighting chance to win the day?

All of this comes to mind after seeing Lakewood Theatre’s vivid and emotionally compelling new production of Christopher Sergel’s 1990 stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which features a beautifully restrained and quietly powerful performance by Tim Blough as Atticus and a large handful of fine supporting performances across the board. When I saw the production on Sunday night (it opened last Friday) the understudy, Zucca Scotto di Carlo, was playing Scout, and she was fine and spunky and easily up to the large and daunting task.

Lakewood’s production, directed by Brenda Hubbard with wit and sensitivity and a genuine feel for both the simplicities and complications inherent in the script, looks and sounds terrific. John Gerth’s shambling realist set evokes a sun-baked and sweat-drenched little poisoned paradise suspended between reality and illusion. Andrew Bray’s sound design and Kurt Herman’s lighting support the vision beautifully, and the talented Sue Bonde’s costumes are period-specific and designed to suggest the personalities of each character (when young Brock Woolworth comes on stage as Dill all decked out in fussy city clothes he looks like a junior version of Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s close childhood friend, on whom she based the character of Dill).

So, too, with many of the performances. The child actors, with Bram Allahdadi as Jem joining Woolworth and di Carlo (and regular Scout Kate McLellan), give loose, easy, natural performances, and several old and younger pros provide plenty of spark from the bench, among them an affably caricatured Hank Cartwright as the decent good ol’ boy sheriff Heck Tate, Rob Harrison as the prosecuting attorney Mr. Gilmore, David Heath as an acerbic Judge Taylor, Jeremy Southard as the racist-with-a-spark-of-goodness Walter Cunningham, and Matthew Sunderland as Boo. As the ill-fated Tom Robinson, Aries Annitya gives a nicely complex performance, sliding between soft politeness and practiced avoidance and, in the courtroom, firm and plainspoken dignity. Monica Fleetwood invests Calpurnia with warmth and intelligence and graciousness, and Janelle Rae David as Tom’s wife and Eric Island as Reverend Sykes make the most of their limited roles. Caren Graham, as eye-on-everything neighbor Miss Maudie, capably assumes the role of narrator as well (everything’s seen through Scout’s eyes in the book; here the storytelling is passed to Maudie, and yet we still seem to see the story from the children’s perspective).

Mamie Colombero swings expressionistically and believably between victim and victimizer as Mayella Ewell, whose charge of rape brings Tom Robinson down, and Tony Green is a believably nasty piece of work as her ne’er-do-well father, Bob Ewell, who almost seems to cackle with pleasure at his own vileness. When he spits on Atticus it is, as it’s meant to be, both an electric and a repugnant moment. And Blough’s tired, stolid, middle-aged, enduring, and close to tragic Atticus towers over everyone, wrapping the story in his strong and comforting and ultimately defeated arms.

Tim Blough as Atticus Finch and Tony Green as Bob Ewell. Lakewood Theatre photo

For all its formidable strengths, Mockingbird feels both in and out of joint with our own times, with the America of 2017. In joint because of the nation’s rising tide of overt racism. Out of joint because of how widely, or narrowly, the story’s told, and who does or doesn’t get a say. Hubbard alludes in her program director’s notes to the challenges the tale presents to a modern audience. “What does it tell us about our society that one of the most widely read novels about racism features a kindly, white man as the hero?” she writes. “As much as we love Atticus, we must also remember Tom Robinson. He is the stark reminder that it will take more than well-meaning white people to change the world. If we have learned nothing else in (57) years, we have learned this.”

Yes, the specter of the noble white hero hangs over the proceedings like a disturbing cloud of paternalism. The black characters are good and powerless (like early Sidney Poitier, they’re allowed no faults), and reliant on the grace and skills of good white society to protect them from the evils of bad white society. The actual world, of course, is vastly more complex, and in the literary world the complexities tend to come more from black writers, who understand America’s racial divide from the inside. Mockingbird is written from and for a white perspective – that’s why it feels like a time capsule – and the danger that its white audience will walk away from the encounter with a sense of virtuousness that does not translate into action is ever-present.

Yet as a wakeup call the tale is highly effective. A culture asleep to its own biases and inequalities needs to be shaken awake, and especially for white readers and audiences Lee’s story has been a great shaker for almost six decades. I tend to agree, at least partly, with critics who call it a children’s book, but a good children’s book can do and say things with a stark simplicity that makes crucial moral questions plain and clear. One doesn’t, of course, stop here. One moves on to Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin and on again to Toni Morrison and Charles R. Johnson and Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others. One listens, and one learns. And in the childish and aggressive ignorance into which America has allowed itself to revert, Mockingbird is not at all a bad touchstone to begin relearning things we should never have forgot. Especially those of us who are white, and don’t take time to look. When I was young in the 1950s and ’60s racial strife and inequality were referred to as “the Negro problem,” even by those who were earnestly trying to grapple with it. It was mostly white people who called it that. And as it turns out, of course, the “Negro problem” was largely a white problem. To Kill a Mockingbird made an honest effort to confront that core truth, if not fully understanding its implications.

The literary world was shocked and ruffled a couple of years ago when another novel by Lee, Go Set a Watchman, was published unexpectedly, a “new” novel that turned out to be an early version of Mockingbird, before editing and rewriting gave it the clear tone and moral certainties that have come down to us. Critical response was largely though not universally negative. I haven’t read it, and there may well be solid literary and aesthetic reasons to dislike it. But I like the fact that it seems to exist within a murkier, less obvious, more conflicted moral universe that touches all of the characters, even the supposedly noble ones. In Watchman, Atticus (who is based on Harper Lee’s own father) is a harsher character, with his own backward racist streak – and yet, when the moment of reckoning comes, he moves things forward. That’s how progress is made: by imperfect characters in an imperfect world making decisions that make things a little less imperfect. Even that notorious Alabama segregationist George Wallace changed his mind in later life, admitting he’d been wrong and asking black Americans for forgiveness. Whether many were willing to give it is another, though related, question.

In the meantime, Mockingbird is what it is, for better and for worse – and Lakewood’s doing this American time-capsule classic, well, justice.

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Lakewood Theatre’s To Kill a Mockingbird continues through Dec. 10 at the Lakewood Center for the Arts, 368 S. State St., Lake Oswego. Ticket and schedule information here.

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