What would longtime Sagaponack resident Truman Capote think of Bay Street Theater’s Literature Live! Production of To Kill a Mockingbird? The show, while aimed at children and abridged to keep it to about 75 minutes, is a powerful, emotional telling of the Harper Lee classic. Capote would probably delight in the epic that places the character Dill, which Lee based on him, as an observer to history in the making.
The cast and crew work together to make To Kill a Mockingbird a uniquely memorable theater experience. While many are familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird the book—which is often required reading in high schools—and the 1962 Gregory Peck film, the theatrical adaptation is full of surprises thanks to its clear, minimalist storytelling style as directed by Joe Minutello.
Told by the grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Chloë Dirksen), Mockingbird centers around a racially charged trial that rocks a small town one summer in the 1930s. Young Jean Louise, or “Scout” (Jemma Kosanke) witnesses the ugly proceedings from an innocent’s perspective, while her brother Jem (Hudson Troy) comes of age as he starts to understand the gravity of the crime. Kosanke is absolutely adorable as Scout, a precocious tomboy whose rough disposition hides a wise-beyond-her-years compassion. Troy lends Jem an introspective air, his eyes betraying his knowledge of the goings-on around him. Their father, Atticus (Scott Eck), is defending Tom Robinson (Chauncy Thomas), a local “negro” accused of raping the troubled, angry Mayella Ewell (Jessica Mortellaro).
As the crime splits the town and exposes the racism and ignorance of several citizens, Atticus teaches his children about humanity and justice while reminding them to see things from other people’s perspectives.
Carolyn Popp is warm and endearing as the children’s neighbor Miss Maudie, and Cooki Winborn is a scene-stealer as their tough-talking, loving housekeeper/nanny Calpurnia. The neighborhood as envisioned by Gary Hygom is a dreamy memory, with a tire swing centered between two stylized houses. The set is made all the more effective with soft, warm lighting by Mike Billings.
The most striking and riveting performance, though, is Mortellaro’s as Mayella Ewell. Mortellaro doesn’t have much stage time, but her confrontation with Atticus on the stand at the trial is chilling, sad and raw. Mortellaro presents Mayella as a reactionary, volatile woman who is victimized by all the men around her, be it her abusive father Bob Ewell (a menacing Joe Pallister) or Atticus, who is just trying to acquit Tom. Her animalistic reaction to being caught in lie after lie will give audiences goose bumps. The courtroom scene, as well as other pivotal scenes, are accompanied by dramatic, tonally appropriate incidental music by Daniel Goodale.
Adult Jean Louise watches over the proceedings as a sort of Greek chorus, reliving her childhood as an older, wiser spectator. Dirksen’s presence makes To Kill a Mockingbird feel like a memory play in the vein of The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. It’s a fascinating theatrical choice and one that pays off. Dirksen is also tasked with narrating a good deal of information to the audience, including a subplot involving Jem reading to an elderly neighbor. The subplot is never staged, likely to keep the running time short for school audiences, but it was an important part of the novel and Dirksen’s crisp, clear storytelling makes it feel significant.
Don’t let the educational “Literature Live!” banner turn you away from To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a powerful, lovely piece of theater that stands on its own thanks to solid performances and an elegant production. It should be noted that the play does contain strong language and racial slurs, but they are integral to the time period and story. The show is recommended for middle school students and older.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through November 29 at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, go to baystreet.org.