Two more chances to see “To Kill A Mockingbird” at LHUCA … it’s worth it

In photo above: David Mitchell at Atticus Finch and Robert Spencer as Tom Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Aguirre)
Attraction: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee.
Staged by: Will of the Wind Productions.
Curtain times: 7:30 p.m. March 9, and 2 p.m. March 10.
Where: Firehouse Theatre at LHUCA, 511 Ave. K.
Ticket prices: Tickets $22.75, includes $2.75 in fees. Price discount offered groups of 10 or more.
Information: Advance tickets sold online at will of the wind.org. Limited seating available at the door before each performance.
Warning: This show contains mature themes and language.
Co-directors: Joshua Aguirre and Ronnie D. Miller.
Cast – David Mitchell as Atticus Finch. Holly Coppola as Scout Finch. Grant Pike as Jeremy Finch, Ayanna Arnold as Calpurnia. Janie Curl as Maudie Atkinson. Beth Peterson as Stephanie Crawford. Verna Kimble as Mrs. Dubose. Andrew Rasa as Arthur “Boo” Radley. Grayson Sharp as Dill Harris. Jake Medina as Heck Tate. Dennis Kimble as Judge Taylor. Ronnie Miller as Mr. Gilmer. Griffin Kimble as Mayella Ewell. Patrick Jones as Bob Ewell. Robert Spencer as Tom Robinson.
The story – Scout, a young girl in a quiet Alabama town, and older brother Jeremy are being raised by their widowed father, an attorney named Atticus Finch. The community’s black citizens share a special feeling about Atticus, who tells Scout that he is defending a young black man wrongfully accused of a grave crime. Atticus must fight a legal battle that is part defeat and part triumph.

Softly, quietly, yes, even invasively, the stage adaptation by Will of the Wind Productions of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is determined to touch the heart and open eyes. It’s successful at both.

There are few notable changes. Narration by a child might work on the written page, or off camera, but co-directors Josh Aguirre and Ronnie D. Miller wisely allow observations to be made by someone close enough to notice both the town and the Finch family next door.

They have opted to use an original adaptation by Christopher Sergel, rather than a controversial new version on Broadway by Aaron Sorkin which even the Lee family has protested.

Nevertheless, working with a relatively large cast of almost 20 in the intimate Firehouse Theatre at LHUCA, Aguirre and Miller paint good, evil and young confusion in theatrical colors. Their story transports audiences back to a time when the Southern white prejudice of the Jim Crow era dominated Mississippi’s (fictional) town of Maycomb in the 1930s.

Into this setting is introduced a widower raising two children, Atticus Finch, who also has the unenviable task of being the attorney asked by a judge to defend young black man Tom Robinson … arrested for raping Mayella Ewell, who is white.

Just as important, the town is not populated only by hate. There are those who understand, and those, like Walter Cunningham (Garrett Benson),  on the brink of understanding, if not there yet.

A warning is attached to this production, noting  the story includes mature themes and language. The latter is not what one might expect,  arriving early from offstage when Finch’s headstrong daughter – named Jean Louise, but preferring the nickname Scout – is informed that her dad is “a —— lover.”

There are phrases she does not yet understand.

The play leads to Robinson’s trial, of course, with a simplistic yet effective set design by Christopher Rogers beautifully expressing a particular neighborhood, the town courthouse steps and – with minimal effort – the courtroom where a man is placed on trial for his life.

Gifted directing partners Miller and Aguirre continue to possess an uncanny casting ability. They sparkle during the audition process, filling the stage with a mixture of veteran and less experienced actors who nevertheless emerge perfect for their roles.

While there are standouts, even in smaller (and younger) roles, it is easy, and accurate, to state the entire ensemble contributes. Keep that in mind if not all are mentioned.

With the exception of one emotional outburst, David Mitchell delivers understated work throughout as Atticus, not an easy undertaking.

One rarely wonders about the attorney’s back story before he began practicing law, but he reveals a simmering determination when faced with a potential lynch mob. And while he would prefer Sheriff Heck Tate take the shot, Mitchell’s Atticus does not hesitate to pick up a rifle and put down a rabid dog from a distance.

Scout, played by Holly Coppola, had been less than proud of her father’s profession, but hey, knowing he’s a dead shot, that’s something to brag about. Janie Curl, as neighbor Miss Maudie, is quite the influence on Scout. She is a fountain of knowledge not only about Atticus, but also defending the rarely seen Arthur “Boo” Radley from fearsome rumors spread by Beth Petersen as Miss Stephanie.

Verna Kimble is terrific as seemingly grouchy Mrs. Dubose; only later can Atticus impart some knowledge about her to temporarily resentful son Jem (Grant Pike). Solid work is turned in by Coppola and Pike. In addition, audiences are bound to be won over immediately by a splendid performance from young Grayson Sharp as Scout’s sensitive best friend, Dill.

Ayanna Arnold is spot on as caring housekeeper Calpurnia, knowing when to be strict and when to defer. Jake Medina was born to be on stage; he is believable in his several scenes as Sheriff Tate. An acting student at Texas Tech, one hopes to see more of him on and off campus.

No doubt the directors put much thought into the casting of accused rapist Tom Robinson, whose mutilated hand plays a role in his defense. Robert Spencer could not be a better choice. Robinson carries a silent defeatist attitude, as though assuming conviction simply by being arrested. Yet he shows no fear when questioned by Finch and asked to tell what happened on the day in question.

Spencer, according to program notes, may move to Dallas soon to pursue theater and film roles, having been signed by an agency.

It isn’t often that villains stand out, but Miller and Aguirre struck paydirt when casting the roles of Mayella Ewell and Bob Ewell. Griffin Kimble plays the uneducated, lonely woman who makes plans to seduce the always helpful Robinson, only to cry rape after being caught and beaten by her father.

Kimble communicates as a woman who, never having been treated with kindness, assumes Finch is looking down on her and insulting her by referring to her as “ma’am.” Living on the outskirts of town, she has trouble even knowing what a “friend” is and again assumes the insult. Making a mistake driven by abuse and loneliness, hers is not a character to despise.

It was impossible to tell for sure, but, from my vantage point, it appeared that Mayella’s hand was barely above, not firmly on, the Bible as she swore to tell the truth. That would be a nice touch.

Even so, a white jury in the 1930s could not possibly understand how a black man could feel sorry for a white woman. Whether Atticus convinces the jury is almost immaterial, as the audience is convinced Mayella was beaten severely by her father.

Patrick Ryan Jones, seen recently in “Wait Until Dark” at Lubbock Community Theatre, pulls out all the stops as Bob Ewell in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Jones does not simply represent the racism of the time, he is the epitome of hatred for no good cause, figuratively as rabid as the dog Atticus put down in the road. Jones chews on subtlety and spits it out during courthouse rants.

No verdict could prevent a thirst for blood in the night, with children being protected by the same person who left his home only to leave Scout small gifts in a nearby tree.  The title of the play leads to its moral, with Medina’s sheriff deciding what is best for the little-seen Arthur Radley, a character constructed by actor Andrew Rasa from equal parts fear and sensitivity.

One cannot help but smile as Boo asks Scout to escort him home.

The production is close to faultless and it would be a shame for theater lovers to miss it.  At the performance I saw, timing was off and power diminished when Jean Louise is told in the courtroom to stand, out of respect, because her father is passing.

It is a small mistake, easily remedied.

Kudos to the entire ensemble and crew, regardless.