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Conjuring a Community 

ATC makes 'To Kill a Mockingbird' enjoyable despite some serious flaws

You can't accuse the artists at Arizona Theatre Company of shirking from a challenge. In fact, they created a massive one for themselves by taking on a stage version of one of the most beloved American novels (and movies) of the 20th century: To Kill a Mockingbird.

The play is the first in ATC's five-year series titled American Plays! Celebrating Great American Stories, and it will include supplemental events such as a mock trial, post-performance discussions, readers' theater events at bookstores and libraries, book-club discussions and pre-show lectures. See the ATC Web site for more details.

As adapted by playwright Christopher Sergel and directed by ATC associate artistic director Samantha K. Wyer, the company's current production of this tale about the childhood discovery of prejudice, injustice and integrity in Depression-era Alabama is inarguably enjoyable, despite a few glaring flaws.

ATC's usual excellent production values help greatly on that count. Hugh Landwehr's sets feature lovely clapboard houses with rotting boards, sloping porches and sagging roofs. Sam Fleming's costumes are perfect, as are the subtle lighting designs by Dennis Parichy and the gentle blues-folk score by composer Peter Ostroushko.

Many audience members already will be familiar with the plot. Set primarily during the summer of 1935 in the town of Maycomb, the events unfold through the eyes of 9-year-old Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout, who lives with her 12-year-old brother Jem, housekeeper Calpurnia and widowed 50-something father, Atticus Finch.

Atticus takes on the unwinnable case of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman. But, as Atticus tells Scout, even if a battle seems already lost, it is worth fighting if your cause is right. The story juggles race issues, ongoing preparations for the trial and Scout and Jem's near-idyllic romps through summertime Maycomb.

During their lazy days of playing, they meet Dill Harris, a slight, book-smart boy who has come to Maycomb to spend the summer with his aunt. What Dill lacks in size and build, he makes up in temerity. It is through his insistence that the trio focuses their collective attention on the lonely, dark house down the street in which lives the simple-headed recluse and local legend Boo Radley.

Thanks to Wyer and the playwright, the pacing is smooth, and the moral center of the play is intact. The settings emit the nostalgic warmth necessary for enjoying a tale of an America nearly forgotten. The second-act trial scene is riveting.

Some of the performances, however, get in the way of the story.

Although he is strong throughout, John Rensenhouse plays Atticus as a tad too blustery. His Atticus has the confident reserve of morality that you expect, but he mars that effect with too much old-codger fussiness.

As Jem and Dill, respectively, brothers Adam and Christopher Moffitt ably capture the magic of youth in naturalistic fashion. In Lee's novel (and in the film version), Scout's magic is in the character's lack of precociousness. But as portrayed by the 12-year-old Daria LeGrand, this Scout is savvy and knowing. Despite the fact that the script paints her as innocent, Scout seems acutely aware of the significance of her actions, such as when she confronts the leader of a lynch mob outside the town jail.

LeGrand is not a bad actor. On the contrary, she shows a concentration and discipline uncommon in performers of her age, and her line readings on opening night seemed flawless. But LeGrand also has learned to chew scenery with the best of them; when she cocks her head and half-opens her mouth in a broadly quizzical "Huh?" expression, it's not simply disingenuous, but just plain overacting.

It is therefore oddly appropriate that this over-effusive style is reflected in the performance of ATC veteran Wendy Robie as a grown-up Jean Louise, who pops up every so often during the proceedings to narrate the tale, insinuating herself into the action and grinning in a fashion that can only be called maniacal.

It's clear that the playwright wanted to layer the work with an adult's perspective on rosy, cherished memories of childhood, while paying homage to Harper Lee's poetic imagery. But this device is the script's major weakness. Sometimes, older Jean Louise redundantly describes the action we plainly see taking place before us. When that isn't the case, the self-consciousness of her inclusion seems to blatantly tell the audience how to feel about what unfolds, rather than allowing us to do so on our own.

And yet, during the second-act trial scene, the audience gets to play a greater part as the play breaks through the fourth wall. Atticus Finch and prosecutor Mr. Gilmer (Cale Epps) direct their arguments to audience as if we are jury, indirectly making us feel responsible for the verdict.

Here is where this production of To Kill a Mockingbird thrives: in conjuring a community that includes us all. Becoming participants in the story, we are called upon to decide for ourselves how we feel about these issues, and inspired perhaps to explore our own memories of childhood and loss of innocence.

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