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Theater Review:

"TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD," CollaborAction at Chopin Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

CollaborAction is more an arts collective, with strong ties to Chicago’s visual-art community, than a traditional theater company. So when the troupe announced its "post-modern"-designed production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- Harper Lee’s classic exploration of race relations in the 1930’s rural South – curious theatergoers wondered how they might reimagine a work firmly planted in naturalistic drama.

Well, to a great extent, Anthony Moseley’s sturdy staging at Chopin Theatre has not veered too far from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel’s menacingly languorous Maycomb, Alabama mood. The main difference is conceptual artist Wesley Kimler’s skeletal, nuclear wasteland-inspired sets, which he co-designed and constructed with David Wolf. Although an intriguing non-literal and non-linear visual choice, the auteur-like sets ultimately work against the production’s more traditional tone.

So audiences need not think they’re alone if they feel like they’re viewing a classic piece of drama on another theater company’s set that’s in the process of being built. One can argue that the unfinished design mirrors the open-ended quality of Lee’s novel and the fact that racial discrimination persists on many levels in our society today. But, after reading into a lot of the set’s suggested symbolism, I concluded that it provided no urgent insights into the story.

In fact, the sets were quite distracting – especially Boo Radley’s cage-like aviary of a house filled with live finches (way too heavy-handed metaphors for Atticus Finch and the Mockingbird title). If CollaborAction really wanted to craft a more radical staging of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the creative team should have applied the same abstracted and stripped-down psychology to the entire play, particularly the characters. Instead conventional and avant-garde theater worlds collide – resulting in provocative confusion, but confusion nonetheless.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" remains a brutal yet graciously balanced account of racism as seen through the precocious eyes of a little girl named Scout. In Christopher Sergel’s beautifully streamlined adaptation, sympathetic neighbor Miss Maudie serves as the narrator. But Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill are given ample intelligent stage time to get their wise and honest points of view across.

The work centers on the trial of an African-American man, Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell, for whom he did occasional chores. Mayella was no doubt persuaded to lie by her fiercely abusive and alcoholic father, Bob Ewell -- both caught in the cycle of poverty of ignorance. The almost angelically balanced Atticus Finch is the attorney who agrees to defend Tom – thus, putting his and his family’s lives (including children Scout and Jem) in danger as the racist mobs close in.

Essentially a morality tale warning against the dangers of ignorance, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has its didactic moments. Yet Lee refuses to limit her characters to ideologies. So many people in this story are misunderstood: Tom, the Ewell’s, the children and the hermit-like Boo Radley, who suffers from mental illness. Director Moseley pays keen attention to this point and fosters dignified portrayals. And that makes this production quite absorbing.

The overall staging, however, lacks consistency. The child actors are among the most natural and comfortable, most notably Meredith Maresh’s outspoken Scout. She is ably joined by Bryce Bashford’s rebellious but tender-hearted Jem and Max Kirsch’s tall tale-inclined Dill, who’s really crying out for love and attention.

Vershawn Ashanti Young endows Tom Robinson with a compassionate stillness. As Bob Ewell, Larry Neumann, Jr., transcends hick clichees to give us a full-bodied portrait of a man demoralized by destitution. In one of the most stirring performances, Kaitlin Byrd conveys Mayella Ewell’s terror and insecurity through her entire body – from biting her nails to swaying to snapping back at Atticus like a rabid dog. Judy Blue’s Miss Maudie anchors the play in an elegant sort of decency.

Most surprising is Dan Flannery’s lackluster portrayal of central character Atticus Finch. Languid and unvaried, Flannery does little more than read his lines – confusing monotony with measured acuity. While refreshingly free of the fluttery fussiness often associated with the Finchs’ housekeeper Calpurnia, Paula Anglin inclines more toward petulant shouting than tough love. Some of the other town folk, like Lily Fortin’s Miss Stephanie and Patricia Donegan’s Mrs. Dubose, come close to stereotype.

Making a fairly grueling cameo is renowned visual artist-poet Tony Fitzpatrick as the elusive Boo Radley. His scene with Scout is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve witnessed on a local stage. But I still left questioning why Boo Radley remained visible behind his chicken-wire aviary throughout the show. He most likely encompassed the metaphor of the Misunderstood. But, often, his looming presence – like the spunky finches in his aviary – distracted me from the action at hand.

Also troublesome were the severe blackouts between each witness during the courtroom scenes. Jeremy Getz’s ethereal-ominous lighting, however, enhanced the production as did Nicholas Tremulis’ haunting original music and Joseph Fosco’s pitch-perfect sound design.

But Kimler’s sets – including the shells of lopsided buildings defaced with paint smudges and silver duct tape; carrot-orange and apple-red balloons for flowers; and a steel bird-like tree shaped out of mangled wires and an oozing plastic substance – pushed me into a discombobulating psychological plane. Perhaps he meant for the rotting and defaced design style – like death – to serve as a great equalizer. Most effective, however, was Kimler’s corroded wooden swing, which provoked nostalgia tempered by a crumbling loss of innocence.•

CollaborAction Theater Company’s production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" extended through April 14 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Tickets: $20. Call 312-943-5056 or log onto www.collaboraction.org.

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