Laurel Mill Playhouse captures childhood innocence and racial injustice

Folks attending the Laurel Mill Playhouse’s current run of the American classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird” — based on the Pulitzer-prize wining book by Harper Lee and dramatized by Christopher Serget — will face racial injustice head-on in an acclaimed drama that unfolds almost a century ago.

Published in 1960 and adapted to film in 1962, Lee’s book has sold 40 million copies and never been out of print. Film icon Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performances in the movie.

The 1935 trial drama found its way to the stage in 1990 in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. (Serget’s dramatization is performed in the old courthouse of the Monroe County Heritage Museum today.)

Directed here by Jen Sizer and produced by Maureen Rogers, Lee’s underlying themes — the timeless power of childhood innocence, morality and love — play out beautifully in the intimate theater.

Set designers Sizer and Marvin Rogers have crafted levels of quaint, changeable locales and an arty tree onstage, and expanded the illusion to fill the entire lower level of the storefront. During the pre-show, Rogers designates audience seating as the jury box.

In concert with Marge McGugan’s spot-on period costumes, Michael Hartsfield and Sizer’s tech light and sound design, Shawn Fournier’s stage management and Sizer’s skillful direction, the lights rise on Depression-era Alabama in what feels like real time.

Sizer’s large ensemble — John D’Amato as Mr. Gilmer, Dana Fleischer as Mayella Ewell (Julie Rogers played the role on 10/21), Fournier as Thug, Dr. Reginald Garcon as Reverend Sykes, Barbara Gasper as Stephanie Crawford, Richard S. Huffman as Walter Cunningham, Shenochia Jordan as Helen Robinson, Kevin Kelehan as Bob Ewell, Terri Laurino as Maudie Atkinson, Sebastian Leighton as Tom Robinson, Joe Marino as Atticus Finch, McGugan as Mrs. Dubose, Zach Polignone as Jem Finch, Marvin Rogers as Judge Taylor, Maureen Rogers as Jean Louise Finch, Molly Ross as Scout, Nick Russo as Boo and Nathan Radley, Larry Simmons as Heck Tate, Donise Stephens as Calpurnia, Gareth Swing as Dill and Riley Walker as Walter Cunningham, Jr. (voiceover) — delivered exciting performances on opening night.

Maureen Rogers as Jean Louise (nicknamed Scout in her youth) narrates the drama set in in Macomb, Ala., with the charm of a consummate storyteller. When the focus shifts to the stage, she sits quietly in the front row.

Jean Louise’s recollections revisit Scout’s widowed father’s legal defense of a young black man accused of raping a white woman.

As Atticus, Mariano expertly steps up to the role that set Peck’s legacy as “an exemplar of moral decency,” according to Time Magazine.

The gentle chemistry he conjures with the children, in contrast to the fiery passion Atticus wields in the courtroom, creates often quoted moments that bring warmth, humor and enlightenment to a dark story about prejudice and violence.

Atticus says it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird" because the trilling birds (symbolizing innocence) create beauty and cause no harm.

D’Amato as the prosecuting attorney provides a perfect foil to Atticus in a relentless and savvy performance; his aggressive courtroom demeanor speaks volumes about the prejudiced attitudes of the town.

Leighton as the accused, Tom Robinson, is a humble and sympathetic character. His accusers, Kelehan as Bob Ewell (who is a standout as the face of evil) and Fleischer as his abused daughter and the alleged victim, Mayella, draw out anger mixed with pity.

Garcon as Reverend Sykes and Jordan as Tom’s wife, Helen, enact their downtrodden characters with careful dignity. Garcon gets to deliver the wonderful line, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin’,” in a touching moment.

Sixth-grader Ross is as charming and precocious as Scout as anyone could ask. Polignone, as Jem, her brother and fierce protector, exudes youthful energy. When their childhood friend, Swing as Dill, makes his first entrance performing an awesome rendition of “Oh, Susannah” on harmonica, the audience is captivated by the delightful trio and remain so until play’s end.

There are many interesting side plots and wonderful performances too numerous to mention in the Playhouse’s gripping production of “To Kill A Mockingbird”; Sizer and the entire cast and crew have much to be proud of — they are mockingbirds, all.

"To Kill A Mockingbird" continues weekends through Nov. 12, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinee performances on Nov. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. Tickets are $20. Students ages 16-18, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. Buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org

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