The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead has the distinction of being the oldest theater on Long Island. Built in 1881 by David F. Vail and his son George M. Vail, this 300-seat venue with a classic balcony and Gothic and Renaissance influence is a miniature opera house in the Beaux-Arts style of architecture popular in Paris from the 1830s through the end of the 19th century. Today, this historic landmark bustles with a variety of performances and presentations.
Currently on their bill is the Christopher Sergel adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Though the Aaron Sorkin adaptation is currently a hit on Broadway, “The Vail” was able to get the rights for the play since Riverhead is outside the 25-mile radius of New York City. It seems rather apropos that the gothic-style theater should produce a play with such gothic overtones.
This ambitious production premiered last weekend to near-sold out audiences who responded with impassioned applause at the close of each performance.
Act One establishes the racial tension pervasive in the Deep South during the Great Depression. Set in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama, the plot revolves around the pivotal characters of widower lawyer Atticus Finch, performed by Charles Calabrese with the intensity of a man who earnestly wants to do the right thing, and his children, Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout (Chloe Keil) and her brother Jem (Cooper Keil), and their friend Dill (Anthony Buonagurio). These young people have major roles and all give spirited portrayals.
Miss Maudie (Adrienne Pellegrino), neighbor to Atticus and the children, provides the voice of reason as she imparts bits of wisdom to Scout, Jem and Dill. In Scene One, Scout says the only time she ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something was about killing mockingbirds. Miss Maudie explains, “Your father’s right. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This statement foreshadows events to come.
The mysterious Boo Radley is referred to throughout the play but remains a recluse behind closed doors, never revealing himself until the necessary climactic moment. Robert Oliver in the dual roles of Boo and the lawyer for the prosecution, Mr. Gilmer, exhibits his versatility.
Despite mob pressures from some of his Maycomb neighbors, Atticus is preparing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Atticus believes in Tom’s innocence, though he knows this may be a losing battle given the bigotry of the town.
Scout asks, “Why are you doing it?”
Atticus explains, “It’s all about right and wrong.”
In the original book, the trial doesn’t take place until about midway. Similarly, the play opens Act Two with the start of the trial. Tensions build with riveting performances by Mark Swinson in the role of Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of rape, and Alicia James as Mayella, an abused daughter who, under oath, gives a wrenching fabrication of a rape to escape the wrath of her monstrous father. Kevin Hagan as Bob Ewell takes on this heinous face of evil and prejudice sending shivers through the audience.
During the trial, planted actors in the audience shout out menacingly to Tom and Atticus. This is an effective touch that draws the audience into the courtroom scene and gives an added sense of mob mentality.
Viewing the trial from the “colored balcony” are Scout, Jem and Dill, who were invited up there by Reverend Sykes since the main floor of the courthouse was crowded with onlookers. This further illustrates the unspeakable separation of human beings at that time.
Under the dual direction by Charles Calabrese and Adrienne Pellegrino, who also took on major roles, this is a must-see play. We should never forget the heartless prejudice that took place back in the 1930s and sadly still does today, most recently at the hands of a radicalized 19-year-old boy who shot into a congregation of innocent worshipers, killing one and injuring three, at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California.