Entertainment » Theatre

To Kill A Mockingbird

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday May 5, 2016
To Kill A Mockingbird

According to the standard timetable, this means that we're now only 55 years away from Berkeley Playhouse's production of "Go Set a Watchman."

This is the same (rather good) adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" that Contra Costa Civic Theatre put on in 2014, written by Christopher Sergel and buoyed by the narration of a grow-up version of Scout (Laurie Strawn) who observes the action from an older, wiser perspective.

Other than that addition, it's the same story you remember from high school: Upright country lawyer Atticus Finch (Steve Rhyne, who played the ambiguous priest in "Doubt" at CCCT) takes a doomed case defending a black man from the charge of rape. The defendant (Branden Thomas) is transparently innocent, but that doesn't matter to an Alabama town full of dust and Depression, and Atticus' temerity in even mounting a defense makes the town's tensions flare.

Young Scout (Charlotte Ying Levy and Dakota Dry, trading off) and her older brother (Jacon Henrie-Haffaa and Campbell Ives Ziegler) observe all of this breathlessly but without fully understanding what's happening. In the key subplot, the kids obsess and speculate over their mysterious, reclusive neighbor Boo Radley (David Bogdonoff, who actually directed the CCCT production), who becomes a kind of half-sacrificial allegory for innocence.

This "Mockingbird" has one of the most phenomenal stagings we've ever seen, set against an enormous, twisting stencil set of a tree (designed by Mark Thomas) that admittedly suggest the Brothers Grimm more than Harper Lee but which is nevertheless an instantly captivating image. Behind it, a screen displays sharp, solid fields of ultra-saturated colors that change with the mood of the scene and at times turn the actors into hyper-real silhouettes.

It's stripped-down and basic imagery, but instantly arresting, particularly in the cozy and shadowy confines of the Julia Morgan Theatre. Director Darn AC Carollo compliments this with another sharp visual addition: For most of the play, central cast members never leave the stage. Rather, they retire to the rear, like unmoved pieces on a chessboard.

Far from being distracting, this adds to the impression that we're watching memories unfold, each character carefully but only briefly stowed away until they're recalled again. Ann Kendrick (of "Driving Miss Daisy" at the Marin Theater Company) has only a handful of lines as a neighborhood shrew, but she spends the entire first half of the show onstage, observing everything gargoyle-like from a rocking chair. Her presence adds a surprising degree of atmosphere.

A three-piece musical act provide the score, in another classy touch. And all of these elements have the good sense to fade into the background during the centerpiece courtroom scene, which is captivating despite being a foregone conclusion (both because the verdict is cast ahead of time and also because, like everyone else in America, you've read the book).

Technically, this "Mockingbird" is excellent. What holds it back are the performances, which too often land with a feather-touch rather than the more firm swat that's needed. Nobody in the cast is really bad, necessarily; indeed, we've seen actors like Rhyne put in bravura performances before.

But something seems to be holding them back. With the exception of Miia Ashley (a recent Actors Studio graduate) as sharp-tongued housekeeper Calpurnia and a few smaller parts like Kendrick, everyone seems a little muted and detached, as if they're people reenacting something that has gone on before, rather than characters living in the scenes.

Despite the brilliant way the stage is set, movement within it often appears detached and weird, particularly during the climatic struggle at the end. Maybe that's just a risk you run with a story most people know: Familiarity can breed a sense of going through the motions.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" plays through May 28 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Avenue in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call 510-845-8542 or visit BerkeleyPlayhouse.org.

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