On Sept. 18, a rainy Friday evening in the heart of Minneapolis, The Guthrie Theater’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird had its opening night on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. Based on the novel by Harper Lee, this play, directed by John Miller-Stephany, paints a vivid picture of life for both the privileged whites and the mistreated African Americans of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. A trial approaches regarding a young, white female who accused an African American man of raping her.
The audience experiences the trial and the events leading up to and proceeding it through the perspective of Scout, the young and bold daughter of the lawyer defending the accused man. The audience shares Scout’s reactions and emotions as she begins to understand the truths of the time period she is living in.
The children took center stage for much of the beginning of the play, setting up the plot and tone. On opening night, Mary Bair played Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, Noah Deets played Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch, and Isaac Leer played Charles Baker “Dill” Harris. The actors’ active physicality and playfulness on stage brought their characters to life. The chemistry the actors had together onstage and the characters’ inquisitive nature added comedic relief to a story dominated by a serious subject.
The moral compass of the story, Atticus Finch, is played by Baylen Thomas. He keeps a calm and strong demeanor throughout the play, portraying both a selfless father figure and a driven lawyer. His strongest moments came in the trial scenes, where he captivated the audience with his candid closing argument. By the time he finishes, the audience is at the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting the jury’s decision with the rest of the characters in the courtroom.
Matching Thomas’ focus and passion is Ashley Rose Montondo, who plays Mayella Ewell, the supposed rape victim. Without saying anything, Montondo tells the whole story through her carefully selected body language. The image of her crumpled body on the stand — arms crossed, head down, slouched posture and piercing glare — radiates throughout the theater. When she does speak, it only adds to her character. She skillfully portrays the strength and the vulnerability of Mayella Ewell, giving her a trembling voice that fluctuates between soft mumbles and roaring outcries. After her testimony, the audience is able to feel her pain, and the story is no longer so clear cut.
The technical aspects involved in the production add to the experience. In particular, the lighting has a powerful effect during the scene where Scout and Jem walk back to their house during a thunderstorm after their school’s Halloween assembly. The most climactic scene of the show is hidden in immense darkness. Occasional flashes of light timed perfectly interrupt the endless darkness and allows the audience to catch glimpses of the action. Sounds of thunder claps blended with screams from the children create a visceral experience for the audience. The director works well with the Wurtele Thrust stage, a thrust or platform stage that extends out to the audience on three sides. Taking advantage of the audience placement, the director stages the courtroom so that the audience is the jury. The director also makes good use of the space by incorporating entrances and exits from all three sides of the stage. This creates a whole world for the actors to play in and for the audience to enjoy.
While you may have already read the book or seen the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, this play is still worth watching. It adds a whole other dimension only live theatre can offer. With the actors’ close proximity to the audience and the lights and sound emanating throughout the theater, you truly feel part of the story. For those who have not read the book in High School and are new to the story, this is a great opportunity to experience the story and have fun. This production runs September 12 – October 18, 2015. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/_kill_mockingbird.