Critic's PickHarper Lee’s only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1957. It became an instant bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize winner and an Academy Award-winning movie in 1962. The book has sold more than 30 million copies in 18 languages. The novel’s thoughtful adaptation by Christopher Sergel is the opening production for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s 19th season. The story’s reputation means instant recognition and appeal, and when a standout actor like Bruce Cromer takes on the appealing leading role (Gregory Peck won an Academy Award as Atticus Finch in the movie), well, apparently that spells great box office. On opening night CSC announced that all but about 50 tickets had already been sold for the show’s three-week run — before any reviews were published or theatergoers could recommend it to their friends.
That takes nothing away from CSC’s sterling production.
In fact, the quality of the work onstage justifies this powerful response. Cromer is predictably good as the principled attorney who takes on the all-but-futile task of defending a young African American accused of raping a white woman in a rural Alabama town in 1935. But this is not merely a showcase for Cromer. Just as CSC memorably staged The Grapes of Wrath last season, Mockingbird succeeds because of a solid ensemble of actors, several playing multiple roles. Director Sara Clark brings out the best in each of them.
Darnell Pierre Benjamin is a frightened but honest defendant, while Maggie Lou Rader is his downtrodden, desperate accuser. Nicholas Rose plays her belligerent, racist father, pushing the role to the very edge of caricature, but not beyond. Kelly Mengelkoch is a chatty, sympathetic neighbor, Maudie Atkinson, and doubles as the story’s thoughtful narrator. Three capable young actors, Alyssa Mehnert, Noah Lentini and Jack Johnson, have been ably coached by Clark to play Finch’s daughter, son and a friend as naïve but insightful reflectors and interpreters of the prejudiced world around them.
Mockingbird is about the importance of tolerance and understanding, something not achieved in these circumstances but that seems possible eventually. Those sparks of hope have made this a meaningful tale for a half-century, and CSC has brought the story to life in a theatrical way that will resonate with contemporary audiences.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Sept. 30. Saturday matinee performances have been added.