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FAC’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ earns praise

Posted: January 27, 2011 3:39 p.m.
Updated: January 28, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Typically it’s tricky trying to justify spending two hours of your weekend watching a play you’ve seen before, not to mention read the book a couple times and caught the 1962 film adaptation; but when you’re dealing with one of the 20th Century’s most imperative pieces of fiction, like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written in 1960, you should consider making the exception.

Toss in a serious (OK, and adorable) performance by youngster Cassie Gibson as Scout, a peculiarly convincing Dill and respectable Atticus, and you’re doing yourself a disservice by not catching Larry Hembree’s “Mockingbird” this weekend at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County.

Gibson and Andrew Spencer (Dill) are charming and authentic in their portrayal of youths with infinitely quizzical minds. Their drawing out of scenarios to lure the mystical Boo Radley from his shack can be likened to every young boy’s experience ding-dong ditching the neighbor two doors down. Scout questions her father as to what the word rape means, a legitimate query capable of erasing innocence. She wonders why a man who was so courteous to her father, Mr. Cunningham, turns about a day later threatening harm against Atticus.

Steve Reeves’ Atticus is slow to start, but recovers with vigor by the second act. (My heart goes out to anyone willing to take on a role defined by Gregory Peck in the film version.) A bit more casual than expected, but still distinguished, Atticus serves his role effectively as Maycomb, Alabama’s higher moral being.

Always bamboozling, of course, is the dynamic of Atticus and Scout’s relationship. Without knowing the story, and flat out being told they’re father-daughter, a viewer may never put it together. It appears more mentor-mentee, but perhaps that’s the point.

Arguably doing the most with their role was John Carrington as Sheriff Heck Tate, who brought to mind thoughts of Robert Duvall in “Lonesome Dove,” or, more recently, “Crazy Heart.” (Ironically, Duvall played Boo Radley in the 1962 film.) A respected ol’ codger, Tate’s been around long enough to realize when something’s awry, and that’s the case in his southern town during the Radley case.

With satisfactory performances also coming from Nicholas Perry as Jem, Rosalind Watson as Calpurnia and Denise Pearman as Maudie Atkinson, and production by Bryant Herring, the “Mockingbird” on stage in Camden this weekend provides more than two hours of true enchantment.

Hembree, who serves as the executive director of the Nickelodeon Theatre in Columbia, confesses it’s “exciting and challenging to present “Mockingbird,” one of the most profound novels ever written.”

“With a very famous film version and an even more famous novel already existing, the challenge is in creating a new reality for local performers and audiences, using the uniqueness of live theatre as the entry point. As a 50-year-old native Southerner, growing up in a small rural town before integration, directing the play haunts me and, at the same time, forces me to reflect upon where we were, where we are and where we still need to work in terms of racial, gender and socioeconomic discrimination,” Hembree says.

Indeed, it can be at times exhausting just being in the presence of the off-the-wall, colorful Hembree, but there’s no denying his devotion to the arts and his borderline genius when it comes to pairing talent with creativity.

Seen often as a timeless tale with fundamental questions and truths, “To Kill a Mockingbird” enjoys continued praise for perfect reason; the parallels between the 1935 America during which the story is set and the America of 2011 are immediately obvious. With the opening of the play, as the observer hears a speech from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the viewer quickly realizes that Americans at the time were asking themselves and their government what this nation stands for. Sound familiar?

*****

“To Kill a Mockingbird” opened Thursday and runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday’s matinee will be held at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students, seniors and the military. Visit www.fineartscenter.org for more information.

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