By PAM HARBAUGH
ORLANDO — The story may be set in 1935 Alabama, but the themes ring with universality in the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre’s riveting production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Masterfully directed by Thomas Ouellette, this production first nudges you along gently as a warm breeze. Soon you are hooked into the story, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
Christopher Sergel’s sure-footed dramatization stays true to Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It begins as a gossamer memory of the languid summer days in the deep south. In it, a young girl named “Scout,” her brother, “Jem,” and their friend, “Dill,” spend their time kicking dirt, tossing a football, telling tall tales and searching the horizon for something new. “There’s no hurry ’cause there’s no where to go,” Scout says.
As the memory slowly awakens, we are introduced to vivid characters coloring Scout’s world: The town gossip, Miss Crawford (winningly embodied by Allison Decaro), kind neighbor Miss Atkinson (delicately portrayed by Jean Tafler), sour-tempered Mrs. Dubose (a wonderful Suzanne O’Donnell), dignified Rev. Sykes (an elegant Ahmed T. Brooks) and loving housekeeper Calpurnia (radiant Sheryl Carbonell). While these add stability in Scout’s world, this summer, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, will become a time of change opening Scout’s innocent eyes to the hatefulness of racism and the courage needed to stand up to it.
The story accelerates into action when Scout’s father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Bigotry stirs up hatred, which in turn creates a dangerous environment for Mr. Robinson, Atticus and his children.
And oh my, what a wonderful cast OST has to bring this all to life.
Warren Kelly paints a multi-faceted but restrained portrait of Atticus. We see the man as dignified, strong, nurturing to his children and rightfully fearful for their safety. He doesn’t flinch in telling the truth to Scout but at the same time agonizes over her having to grow up so fast. He is the father who really does know best, demanding his children be educated, read and think for themselves.
Josh Lefkowitz shows a deeper than usual portrait of Dill, the gawky boy who is rather forgotten by his parents and comes to live with Atticus’ family for the summer. We see the emotional pain he lives and understand the unbelievable stories he weaves. This character intrigues and becomes one of this production’s most resonating.
Walker Russell is strong and heartfelt as Jem, Scout’s older brother, who defends his sister and lashes out at Mrs. Dubose’s racist remarks.
Eric Hoffmann gives chills in his depiction of hateful Bob Ewell, the abusive father who tells his daughter Mayella Ewell (such a terrific Liz Mignacca) to point an accusing finger at Tom Robinson (Jamil A.C. Magnan in a heart-breaking performance).
But for all this, the story belongs to Scout. And here, young actress Kennedy Joy Foristall delivers a most winning portrayal. She easily flows from humor and warmth to anger and rage, all the while acting “old school” — without benefit of wireless microphones (as do all the cast, thank you). She is loveable, likeable, sassy and fun. She is the torment of Calpurnia, Atticus’ housekeeper who tries to tame his children. She is brave innocence and, oddly enough, the person we all want to be when we grow up.
Helping to bring this to life is the design team who give fine visual support for the story telling.
Scenic designer Bert Scott creates a gorgeous set, depicting the fronts of two homes, a swing and a large area that feels as though it was nothing but hard dirt where kids would play. He also turns this area into a courtroom. Kevin Griffin’s excellent, moody lighting design evokes setting and moves time along. Costume designer Denise Warner does excellent, top notch work on an array of Depression-era clothing.
The Orlando Shakespeare Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has already become wildly popular, so tickets are quite precious. But since this is being performed in repertory, OST can’t do much to extend the run. However, one performance has been added. Go see this powerhouse production.
Photos by Tony Firriolo.
SIDE O’ GRITS: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ runs through March 8. Performances are at various times, including some weekday matinees. The Orlando Shakespeare Theatre is at 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 407-447-1700 ext. 1 or visit www.OrlandoShakes.org.