Look Out, Scout

Please don’t let Daria LeGrand read this.

She is a talented young actress, one so classically cute that she’s exactly what you’d get if cuteness came from a spigot someplace. Besides, audiences are clapping for her, and she’s only 12, for God’s sake. So I feel like a jerk for writing this, but she’s just plain wrong for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Put her in Annie, sure. Bastardize Harper Lee into a musical called Mockingbird! and I’d be standing-O right along with you, Kansas City. But casting this poised, beaming, wised-up, mark-hitting phenom as Scout, that Depression-era tomboy, is yet another victory for professionalism in its war against spirit. LeGrand lacks Scout’s languorousness, her curiosity, her deep shockability. When LeGrand hollers, “Atticus, what’s rape?” she does so not the way Scout would — as a child bold enough to know the word isn’t innocent yet innocent enough to wonder about it — but the way a kid might in one of those movies where the ghost of Steve Martin tends a massive brood. She calls it out like it’s funny.

Perhaps sensing the madness of burdening a 12-year-old’s shoulders with a nearly three-hour adaptation of the most beloved novel of the last century, Chrisopher Sergel, the author of this Kansas City Repertory Theatre adaptation, has given us a grown-up Scout as an onstage narrator. Wendy Robie navigates Harper Lee’s pages like a book on tape and is then called upon to stand around watching the action. Robie is excellent, but her role slows down an already slow story, larding it up with detail that would be better communicated through scenes. It’s strange to speak of anything being necessary in a show adapting a story already told to perfection in two mediums more accessible than theater, but grown-up Scout is entirely un.

The story is the same as ever. One steamy Southern summer, Scout; her brother, Jem; and their odd, bookish friend Dill pass the days daring one another to touch the home of neighborhood recluse Boo Radley. When Scout’s father, Atticus (John Rensenhouse), a local lawyer, takes on the case of Tom Robinson (the excellent James T. Alfred), a black man falsely accused of rape, the neighborhood’s stubborn racism boils over, corrupting the courts, getting Atticus spat on and ultimately placing Scout and Jem in danger.

Despite some shaky moments from Rensenhouse (whose Atticus at times sounds like Gregory Peck guest starring on Scooby-Doo) and many hard-to-hear and poorly blocked scenes of children mumbling or shrieking, this Mockingbird does gather some power. The courtroom scenes are appropriately dramatic, filled to the rafters with Kansas City’s best actors. The standout, in a cast with such talents as Kathleen Warfel and Bruce Roach, is Kathryn Bartholomew. Playing Mayella Ewell — Tom Robinson’s accuser — she is movingly scattered, a woman so lonely and terrified that she almost believes her lies.

If you’re hiding this review from LeGrand, you might also want to keep it from the Rep’s set designers, who have spared no expense in making Maycomb, Alabama, into an abandoned warehouse. Unfathomably, Scout’s sticky, memorable summer is skyless, penned in on all sides by wooden slats cured with that washed-out look of restored antiques. The Radley house might be wonderfully sinister, with a sag to the roof and its upstairs windows lit up like jack-o’-lantern eyes, but here it’s visible only through a rectangular hole in the two-by-fours. Instead of looking at the world through the eyes of a child, we’re seeing it through the open door of a boxcar.

After intermission, the streets and slats of Maycomb are transformed into the two-level courthouse. Here, as in every courtroom drama, Southerners gather to sweat and botch justice. Fans spin lazily, the prosecutor blots moisture from his face and the grown-ups occasionally halt their murder trial so that the children up in the second-floor gallery might squeak to one another. The set at this point is striking but still evidence of a misguided production: Why lavish such detail here while doling out so little to the town itself?

Here’s another example of what’s wrong here. Director Samantha Wyer allows Scott Cordes to play Mayella’s father as a cartoonish bumpkin. When he reappears to menace Scout and Jem in a silly, horror-film riff on Lee’s climax, he’s less a character than a plot device — one forced to hide behind a set of shutters in some kind of abstract maze, clearly visible to the audience as he waits for his moment to pounce. Scout and Jem pass him two or three times, coming within inches of him, before it happens. That’s when I understood: Everyone involved with this, from the folks laboring on it to the folks watching it, is just waiting around for what we know will happen. Then we applaud with courtesy but not with love.

Categories: A&E, Stage