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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.