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Theater : 'Mockingbird' Revisits Another Era


The moral issues in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" are fairly simple:

Don't convict people of crimes they obviously didn't commit. Don't punish odd agoraphobics who slay brutish oafs in the process of defending innocent children. Obey your conscience, even if racists taunt you.

If all of this seems self-evident, you might want something thornier than Lee's tale about growing up in a small Alabama town in the mid-'30s. If not, Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation has opened the new season of La Mirada Theatre's professional theater series, now under the banner of executive producers Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby.

Jules Aaron's staging of "Mockingbird" does provide a satisfying showcase for Bruce Davison as the practically perfect attorney Atticus Finch, for three superb child actors (Alex McKenna, John Graas, Jeremy Lelliott), and for a large cast of skilled character actors. It also demonstrates a serious level of commitment by the new producers of this previously struggling series.

"Mockingbird" was more daring when it was published in 1960 and filmed in 1962, before the Civil Rights Act. Nowadays, Lee's story may have an unexpected patina of topicality, with its glance at the fallibility of juries in racially charged cases, but "Mockingbird" hardly ruffles anyone's feathers.

It's a familiar story. The novel was a prize-winning bestseller, and the movie won an Oscar for Gregory Peck. Davison, thankfully, is lighter-voiced and less stentorian than Peck, though he retains an appropriately stiff gait. He's also more aggressive in his courtroom technique, thanks in part to Sergel's adaptation. Sergel tells the story more smoothly than Horton Foote's screenplay. But the atmosphere behind that story isn't as evocative as it was in the black-and-white film imagery.

The play sketches more of the townspeople, creating a richer sense of the community. A neighbor (Carrie Snodgress) of the Finch family narrates their adventures. Another neighbor (Zelda Rubinstein) gets to tell the story of scary Boo Radley, the apparently demented man who hasn't left his house in 20 years. The hateful Mrs. Dubose (Pat Atkins) is a hard-nosed racist in this version. And the black minister (Alvin Walker) has a higher profile, collecting money for the black man (Haven Mitchell) who has been accused of raping a white woman.

Rape is more openly talked about here. Indeed, little Scout (Alex McKenna) twice asks grown-ups to tell her what rape is, and her father provides an answer, of sorts. The judge, sensing that the courtroom testimony will get raw, takes a recess to allow women and children to leave--which doubles as the play's intermission.

The story is still told primarily from the children's point of view. But its first and third parts, in which the kids are principal players, and the courtroom scene in the middle--where they're primarily spectators--are tied together more effectively than in the movie.

The play eliminates one of the movie's central scenes, in which the children raid the Radley home, only to be terrified by a shadow and a gunshot. And it completely drops their perspective when they're finally put in real jeopardy, instead making it crystal clear who's attacking whom--which makes the event less frightening.

Sergel went overboard in underlining who the real villain is; he even has the miscreant (Michael McCarty) threaten Atticus and spit in his face in the courtroom, instead of in a less public place. This seems unlikely.

John Iacovelli's set shrinks houses down to mere impressions of rambling Southern homes; these look more like big city stoop houses. This works only with the Radley home--it keeps its sense of mystery because we see only a sharply jutting corner of it.

A few other scenic choices look awfully halfhearted. Only half of a representational courtroom is created; the court's witnesses sit on the former scene's porches, diluting the hothouse atmosphere. And the children are attacked in front of their home instead of in the dark woods; surely lighting designer Martin Aronstein should have done something to make this seem less far-fetched.

* "To Kill a Mockingbird," La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 20. $28-$32. (310) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Bruce Davison: Atticus Finch

Carrie Snodgress: Miss Maudie

Alex McKenna: Scout Finch

John Graas: Jem Finch

Jeremy Lelliott: Dill

Joseph Cardinale: Walter Cunningham, Judge Taylor

Michael McCarty: Bob Ewell

Alvin Walker: Reverend Sikes

Lisa Pelikan: Mayella Ewell

Haven Mitchell: Tom Robinson

Tony Pierce: Boo Radley

Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel. Produced by Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby. Directed by Jules Aaron. Sets by John Iacovelli. Lights by Martin Aronstein. Costumes by Richard Odle. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Music by Chuck Estes. Production stage manager Nevin Hedley.

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