DTC ‘Mockingbird’ scores with acting, Lee’s words, but direction wavers
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
If you’re like any normal person, you kinda wanna hate Harper Lee. She wrote, with efficient, clear, evocative prose, perhaps the perfect Southern novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960, and save the occasional letter to the editor, nothing since. More remarkable still, that slender volume’s structure, characters, plot and emotional arcs resonate as vividly today as they ever did. Yes, armed with the ammunition of her words, you’ve got a kill-shot in the making, almost no matter what.
Almost. There’s much to like about Dallas Theater Center’s current production of this stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. (It’s a co-production with Casa Manana; its version closed last month, and while this one has almost the same cast and crew, it’s strikingly different.) Acts 2 is the money, with an unparalleled courtroom scene and a profound coda about the mysterious Boo Radley.
Several of the performances are indelible as well. Anastasia Munoz, as a clucking society lady but mostly as the white girl who accuses a hapless black man of rape, quakes with such nervous ferocity, you fear she’ll shake loose a light fixture. Akron Watson as the victim of her prejudice and James Dybas as her racist father are equally good, and solid work comes from Bob Hess, Denise Lee and Morgan Richards as the precious tomboy Scout. But the production is all but stolen by Aiden Langford as the moppet Dill, a charming kid who could spread diabetes with his sweetness.
That’s the good news. But the director, Wendy Dann, makes puzzling choices and misses many opportunities to give the production more weight. The set, with its multitude of unnecessary layers, is overly complex, and the staging can be confusing. The voice-over narration is abrupt and awkwardly handled, as is Dann’s easy resort to mood lighting and ominous music whenever anyone talks about Boo Radley. (This is theater, not film — don’t resort to melodramatic clichés. I kept expecting Tori Spelling to come out and begin a scene from a Lifetime movie.)
I begrudge no actor the burden of succeeding Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the greatest single dad ever, so it’s fair to cut Jeremy Webb some slack in taking it on. But Webb is at least a decade too young for the part, and makes up for it by slouching and aw-shucksing his shoulders to affect a home-spun likeability. It almost works, but the heavy touch upstages much else.
For devotees of the novel (or the movie), the familiarity of the story is still a delight; for others, this Mockingbird simply doesn’t fly.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.