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“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic Story of Racial Injustice, Is Burning Coal’s Season-Opener

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.)

Burning Coal Theatre Company will open its 2010-11 season with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Christopher Sergel’s 1990 dramatization of Harper Lee’s award-winning 1960 Southern Gothic novel about racial injustice, on Sept. 9-12, 16-19, and 23-26 in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School. Among other awards, Harper Lee’s first and only novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. By July 11, 2010, when the book celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication, America had elected its first black President, an event inconceivable to the white racists of a small town in Alabama portrayed in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

The 1962 motion-picture version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, directed by Robert Mulligan from a screenplay by Horton Foote, starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Scout, and Robert Duvall as Arthur “Boo” Radley. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and nine other 162 Academy awards®, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD won three Oscars — for  Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gregory Peck); Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Horton Foote); and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead, and Oliver Emert).

“I read [first] read [TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD] as an adult, recalls Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis. “For some reason, it wasn’t on any high school or college reading lists that I encountered.”

He adds, “I like the fact that [TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD] is a fairly accurate representation of the small-town South during this period, and that it shows people with a variety of qualities, good, bad, and undecided! I wanted [guest director Randolph Curtis Rand] to direct it, because he dealt so dexterously with our production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a few years back, and I felt it would be a nice ‘book end’ event for him. [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] is widely regarded as having helped begin the seminal event of the 19th century in America, the Civil War. MOCKINGBIRD holds a similar place in regard to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.”

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.)

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.)

When the curtain rises on Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Jerry Davis says, “A small town Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch (Roger Rathburn) has been chosen to represent a young black man, Tom Robinson (Jade Arnold). Tom has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Whitney Madren), by her father, Bob Ewell (Paul Paliyenko). Atticus’ daughter, Scout (Liz Beckham), and son, Jem (Adam Patterson), along with visiting friend Dill (Samantha Rahn), watch in wonder as Atticus, who they had previously reckoned to be an ‘ordinary father,’ became the talk of the town, and a hero, as well.”

Davis adds, “[Director] Randy [Rand] is doing the show with nine actors playing all the many roles. The technical challenges inherent in such a choice are extreme. It means the cast are having to change, on a dime, from one character to another, often with diametrically opposed worldviews, physical realities, voice qualities, etc.”

In addition to director Randy Rand and Burning Coal artistic director Jerry Davis, the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD creative team includes assistant director Kylie McCormick, technical director Mark Peelman, set designer Snow (a.k.a. Rand and Marc Bovino), lighting designer Daniel Winters, costume designer Kelly Farrow, properties manager Jan Doub Morgan, sound designer Elijah Vick, and stage manager Melissa Ricketts.

Jerry Davis says the show’s set is “drawers, a rocking chair, a doll house”; its light is “stark, then naturalistic”; and its costumes are “realistic of the period.”

Selecting TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as Burning Coal’s 2010-11 season-opener was a no-brainer, says Jerry Davis. He adds, “We thought it would be a good idea to celebrate [the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication] and also to look at the material in light of current events in our county.”

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.)

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9-11, 16-18, and 23-25 and 2 p.m. Sept. 12, 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 pay-what-you-can performance Sept. 12th, $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 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 2 p.m. Sept. 12th performance.

NOTE 2: 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.

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