Doing the right thing

2nd Story’s inspiring To Kill a Mockingbird
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 24, 2009

TRIAL TIME Petronio as Finch.

There are plenty of stories that harken back to a Golden Age, but Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird was different. The period it was set in, the Deep South of America during racially lethal times, was hardly an idyllic era. No, the golden part had to do with how heroic a person could be under such conditions and how innocent trust in moral heroics could lead a generation out of moral wilderness.

The current staging at 2nd Story Theatre (through December 13), dramatized by Christopher Sergel and directed by Mark Peckham, is a wonderful production, superbly acted, that couldn't be more convincing if the characters were stepping toward us right off the page.

You could be forgiven for dismissing the story as sappy. A small-town lawyer defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, with the town against him and even his young son dubious, only his young daughter treating him with respect and admiration. But there is defeat and even death at points in this narrative, not to say that the story as a whole isn't supposed to be instructively optimistic.

Atticus Finch (Vince Petronio) is a lawyer appointed by the court to defend Tom Robinson (Jona Cedeno), a black field worker accused of sexually assaulting Mayella Ewell (Amy Thompson), whose shack he would pass every day. His being chosen by the court is actually a nod to justice, because he's known as someone who will give Robinson a thorough defense.

Three young actors steal the show — well, borrow it completely for long scenes. Scout (Margaret Durning) and Jem (Evan Kinnane) are single-parent Atticus's children, and Dill (Arek Schneyer) is an adventurous boy who runs away from home to join them for a few days. Jem suspects that since everybody in town seems to think his father is doing wrong, that's probably so. Atticus won't play touch football with the other fathers or even take him fishing. It takes Atticus killing a mad dog with one shot for his son to respect him. So Jem's loyalty easily wobbles, despite the parental advice that "the one thing that does not abide by majority rule is a man's conscience." Only Scout keeps the faith, daddy's girl that she is.

F. William Oakes's Über-cracker Ewell can wear on us with his single note of strident hatefulness, but Thompson modulates her anger as the supposedly assaulted daughter, so her crescendo on the witness stand is quite convincing. Next to that performance, the most affecting courtroom scene is Cedeno's testimony as accused sharecropper Robinson. Among some strong talent here, it's the most affecting acting of the evening, as the man testifies while knowing that he dare not express the rage he feels at being railroaded. Cedeno also hangs onto his apparently well-researched Alabama accent through all the emotional swoops and turns of his scene, a difficulty exemplified by the servant Calpurnia (Carolyn Pemberton) frequently forgetting what region she is in.

I wish that the subplot about Boo Radley (Jonathan Jacobs) weren't given short shrift in the book and play. He is the local bogeyman in the Finch neighborhood, feebleminded and kept in his house following a sudden act of violence years before. After his existence is mentioned, he's mainly used for a deus ex machina toward the end.

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  Topics: Theater , Crime, Sexual Offenses, F. William Oakes,  More more >
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