Publisher: Elizabeth Hurd

“To Kill A Mockingbird” Reveals Little Gems and Big Baubles

Tad Thurston as Atticus Finch and David Patterson as Bob Ewell flank Brian C, Scott (seated) as Tom Robinson in the courtroom

Jewel Box Theatre, an Oklahoma City tradition, kicks off the 2017-2018 season with “To Kill A Mockingbird” a powerful story by Harper Lee.  Harper Lee’s book came out in 1960 and earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. By 1970 the book was expertly adapted to the stage by Christopher Sergel.  A film, also a classic starring Gregory Peck, was adapted for the screen by Horton Foote. The movie garnered numerous Academy Award nominations with Peck winning the best actor award. 

The story is told by Jean Louise, remembering her father from the perspective of an adult, looking back at her childhood.  As a little girl, Jean Louise was an irrepressible tomboy determined to keep up with older brother, Jem, as they grew up in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the depression.  The year, 1935, was just another year of privation and turmoil, but it marks a special turning point in the life of a little girl called Jean Louise but everyone knows her as Scout.  It is this child’s perspective that astounds as she struggles with her world and the horrors that can occur when racism and privation take over a town.  She learns as Scout that her father is a great man, but she only understands his greatness as the young woman telling her story.

Accusations of rape, incidents of egregious racism, and people forced into a reclusive life shape society in this small southern town, where it is only the profound greatness of a widowed loving father, Atticus Finch that keeps anyone grounded and able to imagine a wider world where those who don’t fit in the narrow categories established by the small minded prevail.  Growing up the book is listed as the favorite of many who wish, like Dill, the young friend of Scout and Jem, that their own father was Atticus.  It is also the favorite of those who discover from the book, that their own father is stamped with the same greatness as Atticus Finch.  They re-read the book, they own a copy of the movie, and they see every staged performance they can.  Every time they see something new to inspire them.

While playing the role of Atticus Finch is a tall order when everyone has seen Peck’s interpretation, it can always show us something we didn’t know we treasured.  Producing the play requires an excellent director.  Jewel Box Theatre chose Ben Hall to direct “To Kill A Mockingbird” and that is an excellent choice.  Hall is well known for his scene design skills, his directing and his acting.  A good director who is also a good actor is a better director.  A good director who is also a good scene designer is also a better director.  That is Ben Hall.

It can be seen in the smaller roles in this production.  Mark Ingram develops a wonderful and very accurate kindly sheriff. David Patterson, Roger Oxford and Larry Harris have quite similar physical descriptions and they each play distinctly different characters and they do so with such perfection that is impossible to confuse one actor with another.  One knows immediately that Larry Harris is the distinguished Judge Taylor, exuding common sense with every breath.  It is instantly obvious that Roger Oxford can be recognized as the deeply conflicted Walter Cunningham, wanting to follow his peers, but the moment that he realizes that  he must follow his conscience is profound.  David Patterson reveals the worst kind of evil, the one based on ignorance and inferiority fueled by alcohol.  From the first time Patterson walks on the stage it is immediately clear that Bob Ewell is that evil man who must be avoided and pitied. 

David Mays is two members of the Radley family, Nathan and brother Arthur, called Boo.  The brothers keep to themselves and Nathan does the business outside the home.  He passes through, slouching, and acknowledges others when spoken to, but he never connects with others.  Brother Boo is a recluse, hiding in the house since a teen-age incidence.  No one has seen him or would recognize him if they did after his years in hiding.  When he finally appears, he also slouches. Mays has created two characters; they slouch alike, sound alike and live together, but they are so completely different it is startling.  He plays the damaged Boo with remarkable sensitivity impacting the audience in the gut.

Kay Lehman is Mrs. Dubose the southern belle become bitter and cantankerous ugly in her racism yet the strength that Atticus Finch sees in her is just visible beneath her cruel remarks.  Teri Lynn Hood as Maudie Atkinson is delightful as she explains Atticus Finch to his young daughter.  Denise Hughes as Stephanie Crawford comes across as the slightly younger and certainly snippier Mrs. Dubose giving greater weight to both roles.  David Hopper is Mr. Gilmer, opposing council and his personal opinion is unclear, but his duty is fulfilled satisfactorily as he prosecutes an innocent man.

Benton Jones is Reverend Sykes pastor of Purchase Church.  His strong faith in God is utmost and his belief in Atticus Finch as one of God’s great men is equal.  He creates a moment for himself in the courtroom when he tells Scout and brother, Jem to stand in respect for their father who is passing by.  That moment is shared with fellow actor, Mariah Warren as Helen Robinson that makes her role as significant as any in the show.  Warren connects with an audience with strength and empathy.

Molly Erwin is Mayella Robinson, the young woman falsely accusing Tom Robinson of a terrible attack.  Her suffering is palpable as she squirms in the witness chair.  It is convincing and terrible as one sees how she will never be able to face the truth, and that facing the truth will be her only salvation.

The Finches have a housekeeper.  Her name is Calpurnia and she is the epitome of the perfect mammy, exercising full authority over her young white charges.  Norma Goff is perfect as Calpurnia displaying her love of the children she cares for and her determination to create a lady out of Scout no matter what.  She ultimately succeeds.  The story of “To Kill A Mockingbird” revolves around Tom Robinson, a young black man with a family who is falsely accused of rape.  Atticus Finch must go against societal norms to defend a black man and Robinson is grateful, but fearful as well.  Brian C. Scott becomes Tom Robinson with certainty—his eyes reflect his fear for himself and for his family without him.  He knows he is receiving the best defense available but he also knows that a jury dare not acquit.  It is the deep south, it is 1935 and a verdict of not guilty cannot be tolerated by the community.  He knows the jury dare not accept his innocence yet he hopes and Scott’s hope is visible in his eyes. Goff and Scott have played these roles before.  They were memorable then and they have both developed greater empathy and depth in their characterizations.

The children in the show are examples of interesting and intelligent casting.  Jacob Dever is older brother Jem and he is everything an older brother should be.  One can see a bit of the young Atticus in Dever’s characterization.  Michael James is Dill and he has a look of desperation that is quite convincing.  He understands how important Atticus Finch is to everyone.  He takes every moment that he can with them and their life.

The role of Jean Louise is dual.  Carrie Helms is the adult Jean Louise Finch recalling her childhood and finally understanding her father and his greatness in full.  Emma Poindexter is Scout, always in overalls over skinned knees and a dirty face.  She is unafraid and questions her father’s choices at every turn.  Both have done a very good job of creating their roles, but something is missing from the performance in each of them.  With Helms it is that she is outside of the action, looking back at her own memories of Alabama in 1935.  She is dressed right out of a 21st century closet.  The decision to do that is a valid one, it acknowledges that the ugly issue of racism is still with us.  But it is still a different time, a different prejudice that we must fight.  Today,  racism is often hidden in condescension rather than open as it was in 1935.  Somehow Jean Louise doesn’t seem to fit the Scout of her youth, and although the costume decision is reasonable, with the characters developing as they have, a young woman remembering a child’s 1935 should be dressed in her own time.  A dress from the forties, or even the ‘new look’ that became the hallmark of the 50’s would be appropriate. It is not necessary for the audience, but it may make a difference for Helm’s performance—connecting her to the role definitively.  Her performance is strong in every other respect and should be respected.

Poindexter’s Scout is a bit one-dimensional.  She seems to question Atticus judgmentally, almost as if she is attacking rather than trying to learn from him.  Poindexter seems comfortable with her lines, and is clearly conscious of projecting to the audience, we can hear her perfectly, but she is also disconnected from the character and that may impact how the audience perceives the older Jean Louise.  Also, she is responding to Finch and that may affect her characterization.

The role of Atticus Finch is no doubt a tall order.  A role that many actors dream of presenting.  Peck’s movie performance set a very high standard, and it is hard to equal that.  Sometimes an actor will attempt to distance his interpretation from a well-known one and try to do everything in opposition.  Peck accomplished much through slight variations in pitch and in timing. He would pause, look at another and respond directly to them.  It is quite possible to follow the example yet choose a different place to pause, a unique variation in pitch as individual and kind as Thurston clearly can be.  An actor can make the role his own, bringing more to the role from his own experience and that is rarely done.  But it can be done.  This production has Tad Thurston in the role of Atticus Finch.  Those reading the book before seeing the movie may have imagined an Atticus looking just like Thurston. 

The first hurdle in rehearsal is to learn the lines and get off the book.  It’s a big hurdle and a chore.  But once that happens the real work begins.  There are more hurdles—developing a character, creating a way that the character relates to others and communicating that to the audience.  It is the hard work that some actors don’t think of as hard because it is also the fun work.  Thurston has cleared the first hurdle with room to spare, but he has work to do yet.  He is one-dimensional, stilted and seems more like a stuffed shirt than a sympathetic father who will never stop loving the deceased wife and mother. There is a glimmer in his eyes that says he can jump the hurdles if he will.  And, it will be fun even though it will be hard.  And in so doing, his relationship with Poindexter will change ever so slightly and she will become the Scout that Harper Lee imagined herself to be.  Neither will be like the actors in any movie or any other show, but both can bring something new, something valuable to the show.

 “To Kill A Mockingbird” plays at the Jewel Box Theatre located at 3700 N. Walker, connected at the south side to the domed church.  The show runs through September 10, 2017 and the curtain is at 8:00 pm  For information and tickets visit or call 405-521-1786. The box office is open Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 6 pm.  It’s a family favorite, so reserve soon as tickets are selling fast.