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Burning Coal’s Production of To Kill a Mockingbird Is Fab-u-lous

Whitney Madren as Mayella Ewell in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Whitney Madren as Mayella Ewell in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Burning Coal Theatre Company’s current production of To Kill a Mockingbird is simply fab-u-lous. Dynamic staging by guest director Randolph Curtis Rand and ingenious double casting of many roles — color-blind and gender-neutral double casting, in some instances — pours gasoline on the fire of Christopher Sergel’s incendiary 1990 stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 Southern Gothic novel about racial injustice in the fictional town of Maycomb, AL, circa 1933-35.

Roger Rathburn brings quiet charisma and great gravitas to the heroic role of unflappable Maycomb attorney Atticus Finch, a soft-spoken widower with two young children running wild while racist friends and neighbors line up against him when he serves as court-appointed defense counsel for one-armed

Roger Rathburn as Atticus and Whitney Madren as Mayella Ewell in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Roger Rathburn as Atticus and Whitney Madren as Mayella Ewell in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

black field hand Tom Robinson (Jade Arnold), who is falsely accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South.

Jade Arnold makes the shameful tragedy of Tom Robinson’s wrongful conviction palpable, and doubles effectively as Tom’s strongest supporter in the black community, the outraged Rev. Sykes of First Purchase Church. Liz Bechham is a peach as spunky tomboy Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her sassy grownup self, who dispassionately narrates the play’s overheated events in an entirely different accent. Adam Patterson is cute as Scout’s athletic brother and constant companion in mischief Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch; and LeDawna Atkins is a picture of righteous indignation as the Finches’ African-American cook Calpurnia, who disciplines Scout and Jem with an iron hand.

Paul Paliyenko is evil incarnate as drunken, unemployed white-trash laborer Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell; but he shifts gears smoothly to bring the earnest Judge Taylor, prickly Miss Stephanie, and concerned prosecutor Gilmer vividly to life. Whitney Madren is a pip as Tom Robinson’s false accuser, Bob Ewell’s horribly abused and terribly lonely hand-wringing daughter Mayella Violet Ewell, whose fear of her father, general hopelessness, and increasing desperation drive her to lie about a situation, knowing that it may cost the accused his life. And Madren doubles delightfully as the Finches’ outspoken neighbor, the wasp-tongued widow Miss Maudie Atkinson.

The Company of the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

The Company of the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

The performance of Jeff Check as Sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus Finch’s racist client, the impecunious farmer Mr. Cunningham, is likewise memorable; and Greg Paul adds a convincing cameo as the Finches’ unhinged neighbor, legendary recluse Arthur “Boo” Radley. But it is whippet-thin, rubbery-faced Samantha Rahn, a splendid seventh grader from Immaculata Catholic School in Durham, who steals the show with her prunish portrayal of ill-tempered drooling nonagenarian Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose and Scout and Jem’s effete playmate Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, whose character is a homage to novelist Harper Lee’s childhood friend and fellow novelist Truman Capote.

The versatile set devised by director Randy Rand and Marc Bovino clears the Burning Coal Theatre deck for a whirlwind of action that lighting designer Daniel Winters illuminates with special sensitivity. The 1930s outfits and accessories created by costume designer Kelly Farrow and properties manager Jan Doub Morgan add to the authenticity of the proceedings, and the sound scheme of sound designer Elijah Vick skillfully underscores the show’s most comic and dramatic moments.

A splendid cast executes the inspired staging of New York City director Randy Rand with admirable fervor. This powerhouse presentation of To Kill a Mockingbird is especially timely, now that the City of Raleigh and Wake County are once again divided along racial lines over the future of its public school system. Would that there were an Atticus Finch to argue the case for working together to ensure a brighter future for all of our children. But instead we have a somewhat arrogant and uncompromising Wake County School Board majority and two of the biggest scoundrels of the Duke University lacrosse case, the Rev. William Barber and Blood Done Sign My Name author and unrepentant Duke 88 professor Timothy B. Tyson, calling each other everything but a child of God.

Liz Beckham as Scout in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Liz Beckham as Scout in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee (photo by the Right Image Photography, Inc.)

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/09/14/679645/mockingbird-kills-it-with-an-amazing.html. (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 9th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2010/09/to-kill-a-mockingbird-harper-lees-southern-gothic-story-of-racial-injustice-is-burning-coals-season-opener/.)

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16-18 and 23-25 and 2 p.m. Sept. 19 and 26 in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.

TICKETS: $20 ($15 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), $10 Thursdays, except $12 per ticket for groups of 10 or more, and $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, five minutes before curtain, to students with valid ID).

BOX OFFICE: 919/834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/. SHOW: http://www.burningcoal.org/season.html.

VIDEO PREVIEW: http://vimeo.com/14276890.

SEASON: http://www.burningcoal.org/season.html.

PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/.

VENUE/DIRECTIONS: http://www.burningcoal.org/third/murphey.html.

NOTE: Burning Coal will open its 2010-11 “Lobby Lectures” season at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 18th, with North Carolina writer Allan Gurganus speaking on the continuing influence of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Tickets will be FREE to anyone holding a ticket for any performance of the show and $5 for everyone else.

OTHER LINKS:

The Play: http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/product_info.php?products_id=1565 (Dramatic Publishing).

The Playwright: http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/AuthorBio.php?titlelink=9848 (Dramatic Publishing), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=4839 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Novel: http://tokillamockingbird50year.com/ (HarperCollins Publishers: To Kill a Mockingbird at 50), http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1140 (ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ALABAMA) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Kill_a_Mockingbird (Wikipedia).

Harper Lee: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1126 (ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ALABAMA), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harper_Lee (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0497369/ (Internet Movie Database).

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Reviews

1 Response

  1. Yes, if only we had a white man with “background,” as Harper Lee says, to lose nobly, and wring his hands, and be lionized forever, while those who actually worked to topple the social system that killed Tom Robinson are forgotten. Then we would fix the situation in Wake County.

    I am happy that the reviewer enjoyed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I look forward to seeing it, despite the story’s limitations for racial politics in 2010. As a timeless statement of conscience, beyond race or the South, it’s a classic. But the shallow understanding here of what an authentic expression of conscience might look like offstage in Raleigh is disappointing.

    Rev. Barber and Dr. Tyson have worked tirelessly and sacrificed much for education in North Carolina. Neither of them has been calling anyone “everything except a child of God.” In fact, both of them have been calling everyone a child of God, and asking us to treat all of the children in our state as such. To “compromise” with the destruction of the public schools is not an act of conscience. The reviewer equates the research-based analysis of the NAACP–which calls for diverse, constitutional, high-quality schools with an increased emphasis on math and science, greater parental involvement, and disavows the creation of any more high-poverty, racially-isolated schools–with the “neighborhood schools” slogan, which has led to re-segregated schools everywhere it has been adopted, all across America. In Wilmington, the “neighborhood schools” approach has been in place for a year and we already have schools that are 95 per cent minority with nearly all students eligible for free and reduced lunches and other schools that are 95 per cent white with 3 per cent of students eligible for free and reduced lunches. And the school board is heading further in that direction; pretty soon we will look like Goldsboro, where the city schools are 100 per cent black and poor and all of the middle class, black and white, has fled., That is what happens with the “neighborhood schools” approach. Slogans are only that; programs are something that takes a little deeper understanding.

    If Atticus Finch were on the school board in Raleigh, I rather doubt he would be calling for “compromise” with an approach that will destroy one of the best urban school systems in the United States. The reviewer can like Rev. Barber or not, he can appreciate Dr. Tyson or not, but he cannot persuade anyone who cares about public education in North Carolina that these men are the problem. I am not nominating them or anyone else for sainthood, but they have had the guts and taken the time to stand up, and without their efforts and the efforts of the NAACP and Great Schools in Wake and many of the parents and churches whom they have rallied, the Wake County public schools would be on the slippery slope to Detroit. If you don’t want Barber and Tyson in Wake County, by all means send them to New Hanover County, where we could use them.