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Review: 'Mockingbird' lives up to the legend

To call "To Kill a Mockingbird" a classic is to understate the case.

Nearly half a century after Harper Lee's only novel won a Pulitzer Prize, this coming-of-age story about racial injustice in the Depression-era Deep South regularly turns up on school reading lists and as the choice of whole towns in those "America Reads" programs in which everybody reads a single book.

Even before Christopher Sergel's 1997 dramatic adaptation — the one used in the production that opened Thursday night at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland — another version was widely produced on stages around the country.

In that one the narrator was not the grown-up Scout but the nosy neighbor, and the trial began in the first act. Bad choices.

In the Sergel version used in this production, which was directed by OSW's Peter Alzado, Jean Louise Finch (played by Judith Sanford) — Scout's real name — recalls the events of the summer of 1935, when she was 10 years old, moving back and forth rather like a more limited edition of the Stage Manager in "Our Town." The first act focuses on principled lawyer Atticus Finch (Sam King) and his children and establishes themes and relationships, while the trial becomes the centerpiece of the second act. Better choices.

They say you should never work with kids or animals, but the kids in this production put the lie to the adage. Miko Hughs as Scout's big brother, Jem, Colin Chasey as the siblings' pal Dill, and especially Sierra Allegra Wood as Scout, whose story this is, play meaty roles with conviction and keep the action moving along.

Almost everybody knows the story. Atticus Finch is a small-town lawyer who defends a young black man wrongfully accused of rape, earning the simmering hatred of townspeople in a Jim Crow world. He explains to Scout that although it's OK to shoot bluejays, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, or by extension any innocent creature that is misunderstood.

OK, it's not good ornithology, but it's the central metaphor. It points not only to the innocent accused, Tom Robinson (Hassan Harris), but to the Boo Radley subplot in which the kids spend much of the summer indulging paranoid fantasies about an unseen neighbor.

Alzado has staged the play on a realistic set by Brian Wallace dominated by the exterior of the Finch home in the first act and the Maycomb County Courthouse in the second. Sam King conveys Atticus' essential goodness and his stubborn commitment to justice with matter-of-fact dignity. By the start of the second act the action has shifted to the ignorance and racial hysteria personified by the Snopes-like Ewells. Tim Kelly as the guttersnipe Bob and Phylicia Fratus as the lying Mayella are properly venomous in the white-trash roles.

A certain compression is involved when Lee's novel is played in less than two hours. Atmosphere is lost. This is no small matter, since atmosphere was central to the original story. It is against the background of a loving family and the slow pulse of small-town Southern life, vibrant in the lens of memory, that Scout discovers the world's meanness. Far from being mere color, the atmospherics in the book were an essential part of Scout's story. They linked the Tom drama with the Boo story and Scout's maturation and kept the whole thing from being pure melodrama.

On opening night the actors sometimes hurried lines, exacerbating the effect of the streamlining done by Sergel. When this begins to happen it can spread quickly, but it can just as easily clear up in later performances.

Sanford's Jean Louise seemed oddly disengaged. What was probably intended as the character's heartfelt reaction to her memories often came across instead as if she weren't clear about what she'd learned, or she was reticent about putting it out there.

Despite some shortcomings, "To Kill a Mockingbird" catches something of the novel's power and charm, and audiences will enjoy it. Although not a children's play, it presents important themes with a clarity that commends it particularly to middle- or high-school age students. It plays Thursdays through Sundays through April 22.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.