- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

No one would deny that adapting a universally known novel for the stage is anything but a steep challenge. Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of those "official" English texts whose place in the English curriculum is ensured by its literary worth and subject matter.
Because millions of schoolchildren have read "Mockingbird" during the past four decades, the majority of audience members have some familiarity with the book and bring some expectations to the play. They are likely to be disappointed with the adaptation Ford's Theatre has brought us.
The script, adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, excises roughly the first-half of the novel. It's not a bad choice something had to go, and the lengthy mood-setting probably was the best section to omit.
But squeezing the novel into 100 minutes of action destroys the languid pace that Miss Lee used to great effect. The play begins, as does the novel, with Scout Finch; her older brother, Jem; and her father, Atticus, living in Maycomb, Ala., a poor town in a poor state in the midst of the Depression.
The novel gives us plenty of time to meet the residents, but we only know superficial things about them in the play: She's the mean old woman, he's the meek sheriff, she's the black nanny, etc.
Tom Robinson (David Aron Damane), a hardworking, honest black man, is accused of rape by white-trash Mayella Ewell (Woodwyn Koons). Although little evidence exists to support the case, he is prosecuted anyway; Atticus (Robert Emmet Lunney) is appointed his attorney. At the time, Scout (Rita Glynn) is a young girl watching the adult world swirl around her. The narrator is Scout as an older woman (Giulia Pagano), looking back on the events with a wiser perspective.
Because the racial hierarchy takes precedence over the rule of law, Atticus is doomed to failure from the beginning. He shoulders his responsibility nevertheless and argues that the case against Tom is a series of falsehoods. No evidence is introduced to show that Mayella was ever raped. The only witnesses are Mayella and her vile father, Bob Ewell (Paul Morris), both of whom Atticus exposes as liars.
Scout and Jem do not appreciate their father until they see how the other townspeople regard him as something of a saint. They would prefer for him to join them in their children's activities, which he does not enjoy.
Atticus is one of the great characters in American literature, and Mr. Lunney invests him with the sublime decency he deserves. If only Mr. Lunney were given a few moments to emote, he could have turned his performance into something memorable. Director Timothy Childs has the actors recite their lines too quickly, and the actors don't even have time to respond to one another. The dialogue between the Finch siblings and their friend Dill (Connor Paolo) was almost incomprehensible because of this.
Even though a man's life is endangered, a sense of menace is almost wholly absent. When a lynch mob appears at the jail and is stopped by Atticus, the would-be killers seem incapable of using harsh language, much less a noose. Mr. Morris as Bob Ewell just seems like a nice guy playing a rotten loser.
I'm not in the habit of offering explicit advice for a production, but I'll make an exception: Slow down. Let the actors act. If the play takes 20 minutes longer, so be it. Audience members already paid for their tickets, and they want to enjoy the production.
Miss Lee truly loved the people she wrote about, seeing them as decent people stained by the racism of their culture. Because of the breakneck pace and desultory character development, we barely get to see them as people.

One-1/2 Stars
WHAT: "To Kill a Mockingbird"
WHERE: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. Nov. 7 and 14, 1 p.m. Thursdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 18
TICKETS: $17 to $43
PHONE: 703/218-6500 or 202/347-4833 or www.fordstheatre.org.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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