Let me tell you what real strength is. Real strength is fighting for a hopeless cause without a chance of victory simply because it is the right thing to do. Atticus Finch is the epitome of this type of strength when he defends a black man accused of beating and raping a white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee’s novel and currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre.
The difficulty in adapting Harper Lee’s classic novel to the stage is that it is so perfectly written that it is practically impossible to edit or alter anything without losing something vital to the story. Sergel does what he can with the script, but the end result is a bit of a mixed bag. Many important moments from the story are edited out or glossed over through exposition from the children or the play’s narrator, Maudie Atkinson. Instead, Sergel focuses the bulk of the attention on the play’s crucial climax: the trial of Tom Robinson and its aftermath.
Director Lorie Obradovich makes the most out of this story as she presents a solidly staged production with gripping performances from the primary cast. Most impressive was the wonderful sense of tension she creates with the play’s climactic trial, especially with the testimony of Tom Robinson.
A T.A.G. nomination for Best Actor may be knocking on John Carlson’s door with his beautifully simple and quietly strong performance as Atticus Finch. Harper Lee would be proud of Carlson’s take on her iconic character as he perfectly grasps Finch’s decency, integrity, intelligence, and character. As Finch, Carlson is utterly unflappable even when facing the derision and insults of most of the citizenry of his hometown for defending Robinson. Without question, he always knows what is right and he will compromise his principles for no-one.
Zoey Dittmer and Aidan Schmidtke give performances that belie their youth as Finch’s two children, Scout and Jem. Schmidtke was especially impressive as he has a deceptively strong presence and projection abilities many experienced and older actors lack. Schmidtke did a tremendous job of showing a young man riding the line between childhood and maturity. At one moment, he could be the son of Atticus Finch, staunchly standing by his father with their shared principles. In the next, he could be very much the child such as when he destroys the plants of a rude neighbor for insulting Atticus.
Ms Dittmer imbues Scout with a delightful playfulness. I just utterly enjoyed watching her when she wasn’t speaking just to see the “kid” things she would do such as swinging from the porch railing. Ms Dittmer nailed Scout’s tomboyish nature as she wouldn’t hesitate getting into a fistfight to defend Finch’s honor and I also liked her zest for adventure as she readily joined Jem in following Atticus to the courthouse and county jail. Her understanding of what it meant to kill a mockingbird also provided a very tender and sweet moment at the play’s end.
As good as the performances from the two children were, they do need to watch their accents. During Act I their accents were flawless. But the accents weakened and vanished during Act II.
Tym Livers gets a lot of things right with his portrayal of Bob Ewell, the white trash father of the alleged rape victim. He is coarse, vulgar, and not overly bright. However, Livers’ performance was missing the vital element of danger. Ewell is a mean man with a brutal temper who does not hesitate to resort to violence. Without the danger element, Livers’ Ewell actually came off a bit humorous which is not good since he needs to pose a genuine threat to the Finch family.
Jarell Roach’s portrayal of Tom Robinson will make you cry. He is a haunted and tragic soul. Roach’s body language is absolutely beautiful as he tries to hide within himself at the trial. He also does an excellent job of bringing the audience’s attention to his useless left arm, subtly demonstrating his character’s innocence. Despite the fact that Robinson is at the mercy of a society that will gleefully convict him based on his skin color, he still possesses a great strength exemplified by his testimony at the trial. Roach expertly shows this strength with a shy, but determined delivery as Robinson does have the truth on his side. I also admired the decency Roach gave to Robinson as he was reluctant to share the full truth to protect his accuser who crossed the ultimate barrier in the eyes of this society.
There were also some strong performances in the supporting cast. Standouts included Wes Clowers’ take on Heck Tate, the moral and decent sheriff of Maycomb County. Deb Kelly keeps the energy going as the show’s narrator, Maudie Atkinson. Larry Wroten is kindly and just as Judge Taylor. Phyllis Mitchell-Butler makes for a wonderful surrogate mother in the role of Finch’s cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia.
Wes Clowers’ simple set will transport you to a 1930s Southern neighborhood and Tom Reardon’s lighting was truly exceptional as it shifted with the story as it weaved its way from narration to action and back again. The only missteps in the evening’s performance was a little uneven acting in the supporting cast and some of the actors needed to be louder, especially since it seemed as if the floor mikes were either turned off or turned very low. A scene of violence also needs some fixing up to be more believable and cues and pace needed to be picked up.
The message of Harper Lee’s novel is still as powerful and profound as when it was originally written. It is a story of strength, character, and dignity. It also proves that, as Atticus Finch said, you can’t really understand another person until you consider things from his viewpoint. And in doing so, we often find we’re really not all that different from one another.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through Nov 22 at the Bellevue Little Theatre. Performances are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students with proper ID. Reservations can be made by calling 402-291-1554 between the hours of 10am-4:30pm Mon-Sat. A little discretion is advised as the show does include racial epithets. Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 E Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.