REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

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REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

street-scene-collage

 
National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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