OLT’s Mockingbird fails to make the grade

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Categories: Community Theatre

Photo: Maria Vartanova

It doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something terribly wrong with Ottawa Little Theatre’s misbegotten production of To Kill A Mocking Bird.

It’s there in the forced, stilted acting, in the lack of fluidity in the staging, in the clumsy handling of the expository passages in Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel about a black man’s trial for rape in the small-town Alabama of more than 80 years ago.

John Collins’s direction is so flaccid and the performances so perfunctory that it takes a while even to be conscious of the hothouse emotional climate that is supposed to be taking hold of this racially-scarred community. Yet you keep hoping that matters will improve. Surely, you think, they won’t botch that first big dramatic moment when Atticus Finch, the accused’s gentle defence attorney, stations himself in front of the jail to stave off an attempted lynching by a blustering mob of rednecks.

But they do botch the scene, which is so badly executed that it becomes almost laughable in its unintentional parody.

To be sure, there are moments when the production does yank itself into some semblance of credibility.

This is especially true in the second act, when Tom Robinson, the accused man, takes the stand in his own defence. Thanks to actor Marcus Jones, in the best performance of the evening, we get an indelible image of quiet dignity, integrity and natural grace. Indeed, even before we hear Jones speak, his very body language and use of silence are more eloquent than anything else happening on stage.

We’re dealing here with material that should have the mood and texture of a memory piece. Barbara Kobolak, who serves as the story’s narrator at key moments, understands this need — but her nuanced, quietly evocative contribution is repeatedly undermined by a tone-deaf production approach that also fails to establish a dramatic momentum and essential character definition.

Two crucial components are ill-served here. The first is that we’re dealing with events viewed through the perceptions of three children — tomboy Scout, brother Jem and their friend Dill —  yet they frequently seem peripheral, even tiresome. The other component has to do with the widowed Atticus Finch and his close, loving relationship with his youngsters, a relationship anchored in a steadfast moral vision which remains secure even in the face of vicious racism.

Some may see Atticus as too idealized a creation, but Gregory Peck found his human dimension in the justly acclaimed film version, as did the late Peter Donaldson in the Stratford Festival’s 2007 production of the same stage script currently on view at OLT. But in this production, David Holton never seems to find his footing. This is no more than a tentative sketch for Atticus. As for the chemistry he should have with the children, who rarely get beyond stridency here — well, forget it.

It’s always tricky to adapt a seminal work of literature to another medium — especially one with the cachet of To Kill A Mockingbird. Horton Foote managed it beautifully in his award-winning screenplay— but Foote was a distinguished playwright himself, with a deep understanding of his southern culture, Christopher Sergel’s adaptation is no more than serviceable, but it can work on stage. A pity then, that it seems so stillborn at OLT.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Christopher Sergel

Adapted from the novel by Harper Lee

Continues at Ottawa Little Theatre to March 4.

Director: John Collins

Set: Klaas Van Weringh

Sound: Brian Cano

Costumes: Peggy Laverty

Cast:

Scout……………………………………..Meghan Docanto-Primeau

Calpurnia…………………………………Linda Nourse

Miss Maudie……………………………..Barbara Kobolak

Miss Stephanie…………………………..Angela Pelly

Judge Taylor/Mr. Cunningham…………..Sam Hanson

Heck Tate………………………………..Bernie Horton

Mrs. Dubose……………………………..Lorilee Holloway

Jem……………………………………….Gavin Blackburn

Reverend Sykes………………………….Michael Wright

Mayella Ewell……………………………Lejla Jasarevic

Bob Ewell………………………………..Matt Easterbrook

Dill……………………………………….Jacob Segreto

Nathan Radley/court clerk………………Keith Colbourne

Atticus Finch……………………………..David Holton

Tom Robinson……………………………Marcus Jones

Choir and court spectators……………….Faduma Warsame, Amanuel Abebe,

Jasmine Wallace-Harder

Boo Radley/Mr. Gilmer………………….Maxime Thibault


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