Wheelock's 'Mockingbird' sings
Wheelock Family Theatre is presenting "To Kill a Mockingbird" as fare for more mature underage audiences - at least 10 years old, by the theater's recommendation. That happens to be the age of Harper Lee's feisty, unforgettable protagonist, Scout, a born scrapper (they were called tomboys back then) growing up amid rampant racism in backwater 1930s Alabama.
In this impressive production, Grace Brakeman, who is 10 herself, must overcome considerable innate cuteness to convey Scout's aggressive need to understand what's going on around her - as well as her tendency, when confronting, say, a backward classmate, to teach by force. As Scout, Brakeman immediately establishes a warm rapport with the audience and an affectionate physical bond with Scout's father, the upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch (optimally embodied, with an air of quiet authority, by Will Lyman). Scout may complain that Atticus is "old" and doesn't do anything - her other brother Jem (Paul McCallion) is even more critical, as befits a teen - but her admiration grows with her understanding of his character, as does ours.
This is WFT's second go-round with "To Kill a Mockingbird": The company gave Christopher Sergel's 1988 adaptation of the 1960 novel its New England premiere in 1993. Sergel's script is superb, masterfully conveying themes of racial injustice - the plot is based in part on the real-life trial of the Scottsboro Boys - while distilling the drama.
Yet I recall that earlier staging as a more ponderous, didactic affair. Thanks in large part to Janie E. Howland's ingenious set - a row of Oak Bluffs-style cottages, which, when spun around, convert to a courtroom gallery - we get the sense of a languorous enclave where life is good, at least for those fortunate enough to have been born white and middle-class. The world of porch swings and vines that Howland summons underscores the unseen horror of the squalid farm where supposed rape victim Mayella Ewell (a riveting Laura Morell) oversees siblings under her father's brutal fist.
There's yet another stratum that we see mostly in passing: that of the hard-working, churchgoing African-Americans upon whose labor the entire community depends. Their presence is as limited as their power: They pass through the audience, singing hymns, and confined to the courtroom's "colored" balcony, look down on an egregious miscarriage of justice.
Many wonderful performances shape this production, all of them beautifully calibrated under Susan Kosoff's direction. Kippy Goldfarb shines as the Finches' neighbor, Miss Maudie. M. Lynda Robinson is delightfully emphatic and excitable as Maudie's gossip-prone sister, and Jane Staab is suitably acidic as crabby Mrs. Dubose (even if her snow-white wig is way too lush for a sickly crone; in every other respect Lisa Simpson's costuming is impeccable).
While Greg Nash is just a touch over the top as Mayella's murderous boor of a father, Steven M. Key, as the accused, creates pure pathos without once making a play for our sympathy - that is, ours as both audience and jury, because Sergel's restructuring puts us in that discomfiting position, albeit without the means to change the outcome.
Wheelock Family Theatre prides itself on presenting challenging fare, and that mission is artfully fulfilled here. In the face of well-channeled young talent such as Brakeman's, it's tempting to lay odds on stardom. What clearly matters to WFT, though, is not so much what the future might hold for youngsters like her, but the experience they're getting - and sharing - right now.