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The cast of Virginia Repertory Theatre's "To Kill a Mockingbird"
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Harry "The Hat" Kollatz Jr. with Mary Badham
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Harry Kollatz Jr.
Molly Nugent, VaRep’s Scout, gets pointers from Mary Badham, who played her in the movie.
Last night The Hat went to Virginia Repertory's Sara Belle and Neil November Theare (formerly TheatreIV and the Empire) to see the preview performance of To Kill A Mockingbird. This is the stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel of the Pulitzer Prize-winnng Harper Lee novel, and here under the direction of Rusty Wilson who has helmed some massive shows before.
A great highlight of the evening was the presence of Richmond native Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film and was nominated for an Academy Award at age 10. The hardware instead went to Patty Duke for the Miracle Worker — tough call. But Badham said she was relieved that “I didn’t have to go up there because I wouldn’t have known what to say.”
Badham appeared moved by last night's production — and she’s seen hundreds of versions around the world. She emphasized her appreciation for the use of an African-American chorus, seated above the action in what becomes “the colored balcony” of the courthouse. She also singled the impressive set design that, through the magic-box construction of Ron Keller, folds in and out of town street and courthouse with dreamlike ease.
While waiting in the concession line during intermission, I almost by accident ran into Badham. Virgnia Rep's Artistic Director, Bruce Miller, introduced us. You know, Mockingbird seems to have been in the culture forever, but really it's been just a bit more than a half-century. Thus, meeting The Actual Scout as a vivacious lady provided a gracious surprise. For the record, I took my hat off in her presence, although for the picture I put it back on. I wouldn't be recognized otherwise, I told her, and she gave a big laugh.
The show’s large and strong ensemble cast features Adrian Rieder as Atticus Finch. Rieder gets around the whole Gregory Peck mountain by inhabiting the character. Gordon Bass makes county sheriff Heck Tate affable and earnest in a difficult situation and he executes a satisfying turn in the end. Suzanne Gray and Ron Reid represent the Ewells, who occupy the next lowest social rung in the community, but who still manage to look down on blacks. Reid’s Bob Ewell is believably rumpled, haggard and easy to dislike. Gray makes Mayella Ewell, who sparks the action that puts a man on trial for his life for a crime he didn’t commit, desperate and ignorant at the same time and therefore painful to watch. But the center of conflict is the calm, imposing presence of A.J. Calbert as the wrongly accused Tom Robinson. He cannot hope of anything other than a guilty verdict, but Atticus gives him a fighting chance.
Kids on stage can get cloying and cute, but here the three youngsters are not just acting. The key role of his daughter, Jean Louise Finch — who only gets called that when in trouble — better known as Scout, is played with suitable feistiness and innocence by Molly Nugent, a Glen Allen fifth-grader who, despite her age, isn’t a newbie. Her stage brother, Jem, is played by Nick Dauley, a freshman at Thomas Dale’s Specialty Center for the Arts and a member of HATTheatre's HATTBox Players. He was recently seen as Georgie in HATTheatre’s Over the Tavern.Henry Boyle as the visiting Dill ( “I can read!”), a seventh grader, performed in SPARC’s 2011 30th Anniversary Gala at the Carpenter Theatre and as Sonny in Firehouse Theatre’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The Honorable Roger L. Gregory, a federal judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, gives gravitas to his Reverend Sykes. He took on the role in Virginia Rep’s 2003 production ofMockingbird. Laine Satterfield, as Maudie Atkinson, has the part of being the Finch’s next-door neighbor who also addresses the audience to condense action. Frank Creasy does double duty as a poor farmer who pays his lawyer bill in turnips and firewood and later leads a mob of men to attack the jail, and as Judge Taylor in the trial. Dean Knight is a courtroom spectator, but also the mysterious Boo Radley.
In the Q & A that followed, Badham recounted how close the cast of the film version ofMockingbird became and that even afterward, she called Peck "Atticus." She’s traveled many places to be a part of the conversation engendered by Mockingbird’s enduring power. She was once invited to accompany a Russian production. How well would a period piece set in the U.S. South translate? As it turned out, the issues raised by Mockingbird — among them, race, class and family — are universal.
“Ignorance is the root of all evil,” Badham says. “Education is the key to freedom.”