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THEATER REVIEW

Troupe adapts to a `Mockingbird'

International City Theatre deals adeptly with limitations of a stage text based on Harper Lee's novel and speaks to the heart.

October 25, 2006|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

There's an innate problem with dramatizing "To Kill a Mockingbird." After all, when you're dealing with one of the most celebrated and revered novels of the 20th century, you are confronting a veritable minefield of audience expectations.

In International City Theatre's production of "Mockingbird," director Shashin Desai, working from a somewhat creaky adaptation by Christopher Sergel, nimbly traverses the work's familiar terrain in a handsomely mounted, unabashedly sentimental staging that speaks directly to the heart.

Based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, Sergel's 1970 stage adaptation has been mounted annually in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Reportedly, the reclusive Lee has never seen the play.

That may be just as well. Although Sergel's work has been widely produced since its inception, it is oversimplified and rudimentary, particularly in its handling of Lee's sophisticated themes about racial injustice. Most puzzling is why Sergel elected to use the arguably peripheral character of Maudie Atkinson as the play's narrator rather than the character of the adult Scout, the first-person narrator of Lee's novel. Without the voice of the adult Scout, "Mockingbird" loses a vital layer of rueful nostalgia, the voice of measured experience commenting on innocence past.

The limitations of the text don't prevent Desai and his talented cast from making the most of their material. A properly elegiac mood is set by Max Kinberg's haunting original music and Jeremy Pivnick's mellow lighting, which have the gentle qualities of another place and time. Set in 1935, the action transpires in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Ala. You can feel the dust filtering through the cracks of Tom Buderwitz's evocative set, with its scrubbed clapboard houses and carefully kept flower beds, a telling indication of proud people and hard times. Kim DeShazo's neatly realized period costumes span the spectrum from Sunday best to unheeding griminess.

Of course, any actor playing Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer who risks all to defend a black man accused of rape, must emerge from the towering shadow of Gregory Peck, who played the role in the 1962 film. Folksy and avuncular, Neil Larson is a satisfying Atticus, and although his delivery sometimes verges on the stereotypically warm and fuzzy, he is more often absolutely assured.

As important as Atticus -- and far more difficult to cast -- are the three crucial roles of Scout, her brother, Jem, and their friend Dill. Desai elicits solid performances from his young actors. Lexi Ainsworth is a resonantly tomboyish Scout, while Angelo Custino has just the right edge of adolescent rebelliousness as Jem. Drew Carr is perfectly cast as Dill, a wise man in miniature with a precocious knowledge of the world's impermanence. Whether you agree with her character's function or not, Jacqueline Schultz shines as Maudie Atkinson, Atticus' longtime neighbor and friend. And Matt Foyer is chillingly shifty as Bob Ewell, the drunken racist whose white skin is his only ace in the hole -- a race card in a stacked deck.

*

`To Kill a Mockingbird'

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Nov. 12

Price: $32 to $42

Contact: (562) 436-4610, www.ictlongbeach.org

Running time: 2 hours

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