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‘Mockingbird’ still sings on stage

Jules Becker

Mary Badham was back in Harper Lee country last Saturday night at the Calderwood Pavilion.

Acclaimed for her performance as Scout in the honored 1962 film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Oscar-nominated actress was the special guest of Boston Children’s Theatre (BCT) at the opening of its revival of the stage adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winner.

Perhaps her presence was a good omen for the production, which kicks off the company’s 60th anniversary season and honors the 50th anniversary of the novel as well.  Clearly the BCT staging has caught the heart and soul of the now legendary book and given full expression to its timely call for justice, equality and human understanding.

In fact, the trio of talented actors playing principled Southern lawyer Atticus Finch’s son Jem and daughter Scott and their new friend Dill prove to be the standouts in the spirited revival.

Badham was autographing copies of the seminal book at a pre-opening reception, and the Christopher Sergel adaptation does full justice to the novel’s insights about the effects of bigotry on all people but most especially on children.

Under Burgess Clark’s solid direction, Victoria Cargill as inquisitive Scout and Bryan Marden as intrepid Jem serve along with engaging Dill as a kind of three-fold voice for Lee’s strong opposition to the name-calling, stereotyping, segregation and injustices visited upon African Americans in the novel’s Depression era, Southern setting.

All three actors bring the right sense of naturalness to their roles- Cargill’s feistiness as  Scout, Marden’s fearlessness as Jem and Alec Shiman’s effervescent charm as Dill.

Burgess makes the most of these memorable characters but also does full justice to the book’s (and the adaptation’s) unflinching depiction of the virulent anti-black hatred that lawyer Finch confronted in representing African American defendant Tom Robinson, unjustly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the daughter of vicious white bigot Bob Ewell. 

Andy Jasmin has all of the inner strength and vulnerability of Robinson. Tim Lawton catches Ewell’s venom in his speech and his body language, and Alyson Grindall has the right lack of insight as manipulated Mayella. Doug Bowen-Flynn has the right stoic determination as Finch, though he needs to make the undaunted lawyer as memorably arresting as Oscar-winning Gregory Peck made him in the film.

Strong support comes from Ellen Soderberg as frequent narrator and civil rights-supporting neighbor Maude Atkinson and Andrea Lyman as Finch’s strong-willed housekeeper Calpurnia, especially in disciplining the children. Janie E. Howland’s spare but stylized designs – the side by side homes of Finch and his neighbors and the pivotal courtroom – catch the story’s vivid time and place..

The children learn early on about the beautiful music of the title bird and the need to protect it. The BCT honors that life lesson in a “Mockingbird” that really sings.

At a post-opening talkback, Badham looked back to the experience of the film and  her own memories. Missing the late great black actor Brock Peters, who played Tom in the film, she recalled  meeting Sidney Poitier at his home and “all the jazz greats” that regularly visited there.

Quite close to the late Gregory Peck – who died in 2003 – she admitted, “I miss him dreadfully.” Speaking of her own response to bigotry at the time, Badham said,” I was raised that you look at the person inside.”