reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Harper Lee’s excellent novel To Kill a Mockingbird is the rare American literary classic which enjoys near universal admiration and lasting appeal. It achieved immediate success upon its publication in 1960 and has remained a favorite in all its various forms – as a Pulitzer Prize winning book, an Academy Award winning film production and a popular theatrical venture, the latter having recently reopened on Broadway in a renewed and controversial adaptation by Aaron Sorkin.

Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s compelling offering of the original play by Christopher Sergel opened Friday night on the group’s Center for the Performing Arts Tarkington stage. Directed by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the show is rendered in as direct a manner as I have seen it done. By that I mean: the prevailing style of storytelling employed by the cast is realistic, without much added drama “flavoring”, and perhaps more importantly – it is fashioned as a simply told enlightenment.

from left: Atticus Finch (Steve Kruze) and Heck Tate (Clay Mabbitt) confer in a scene from Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

This straightforward feeling starts immediately with the opening monologue by Michelle Wafford, as the narrating character Jean Louise Finch, who sets up the 1935 flashback we are invited to observe. As the plain-spoken technique continues through the play, it proves an effective way to set forth the important lessons of Ms. Lee’s story.

The cast is filled with wonderful characterizations. Steve Kruze leads the way as Atticus Finch, the iconic lawyer who sets out to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, in a Southern town with a prevalence of racial bias. Kruze employs the matter-of-fact approach very well and offers a Finch who is as wise but perhaps not quite as saintly as his film predecessor Gregory Peck. This makes for a good measure of originality in the role and the actor especially shines in Finch’s impassioned cross-examination speech.

from left:
Scout (Bridget Bingham), Jean Louise Finch ( Michelle Wafford) , Dill (Ben Boyce) and Jem (Dalyn Stewart) in a scene from Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

A trio of young actors take the roles of Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill. Bridget Bingham presents a highly spirited Scout – whose inquisitive tomboy aspects are firmly held to. Dalyn Stewart is an accomplished local young performer, and he does a fine job with the wide run of emotions for his Jem. Seventh grader Ben Boyce was well cast as Dill, whose mannerly creativity in finding innocent mischief is adroitly portrayed.

from left: Mayella Ewell (Morgan Morton) is intimidated by her father Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner) in a scene from Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Other standouts include Clay Mabbitt as a pragmatic Sheriff Heck Tate, Joe Steiner as the despicable Bob Ewell, Morgan Morton as his much put-upon daughter, Mayella Ewell, and Antoine Demmings as the doomed defendant Tom Robinson. Holly Stults does first-rate work as elderly neighbor Mrs. Dubose, Chandra Lynch is a sharply drawn housekeeper Calpurnia, and Jason A. Plake is a very believable Prosecutor Gilmer.

A courtroom scene from Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Set design by Ryan Koharchik.

The action is presented on Ryan Koharchik’s imaginative and artistic set, with period costuming by Adrienne Conces. Koharchik also designed the effective lighting scheme.

The only tarnish on the production seems to be an old bug-a-boo – a sometimes lax approach to enunciation, especially in the children, but not entirely confined to their efforts. It really is a shame to not be able to make out every word of every line, especially in such an important play. In spite of that misgiving, the show’s many themes come through with sufficient impact. This moving and thoughtful story can not be denied its place in our troubled world.

Prosecutor Mr. Gilmer (Jason A. Plake) questions defendant Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings) in a scene from Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

Bottomline: This is an altogether enjoyable production of a most important play. It would seem to be a valuable endeavor to share with family in terms of what it brings to light for the unenlightened. As the book itself is a treasure – so too the play which, perhaps more readily, allows there to be hope for better understanding and better outcomes.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues at the Booth Tarkington Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through February 23rd. For ticket information and reservations call 317.843.3800 or go online at .

  • – Photos by Zach Rosing