Cedar City • Southern writer Flannery O'Connor dismissed it as a children's book that "does all right." Carson McCullers once huffed that it poached "on my literary preserves." Critics today charge that its view of black Southerners is painfully one-dimensional.
Even with all that leveled against it, there's no denying the miraculous way Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" charms us with its gorgeous prose and lilting humor every time we read it. Atticus Finch endures as a character because we feel that we're exposed to his home-spun wisdom anew every time he speaks. Scout remains the American archetype of childhood's painful breaches into adulthood.
Boo Radley remains not just the greatest character to boast but one speaking line, and the ultimate in "deus ex machina" devices. He's also, in case you're interested, the moniker behind a great British pop band.
The stakes, in other words, are sky high when it comes to adapting for stage a book so many know and love. The task grows ever greater alongside the 1962 film, which set Gregory Peck firmly in legendary status when he played the Depression-era lawyer of Maycomb, Ala., charged with defending an innocent black man against a trumped up charge of rape. Perhaps it's understandable that Lee herself never wrote another book. Few novels have a life of their own apart from their authors. To Kill a Mockingbird is that kind of book.
The problem with iconic creations is that few can resist their pull, even when the result inevitably falls short. Case in point? Christopher Sergel's admirable but disappointing stage adaptation being performed at this year's Utah Shakespeare Festival.
The story's all there. As a result, so is the drama. But gone is the immersive effect of seeing the world through Scout's eyes when you read the book. And lost is the irresistible poignancy wrought through the film camera when you watch the movie. Sergel's adaptation has been performed annually in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., for years. That setting alone lends in authenticity, but it's telling that Lee herself has reportedly never attended a single performance.
Maybe none of this background is relevant for anyone out for a simple night of theater and a great story. But it will at least prepare those who hold the book dear that there are a string of mild disappointments in store.
The cast of the Festival's production acquit themselves well in this impossible task, most notably the children's cast including Jinger Axelson, who plays Scout with a quasi-stoic tone that suits the character's tomboy spirit and innocence enough to draw your eye into her every scene. Martin Kildare as Atticus Finch sports all the character's integrity and resolve, but with an odd tone of occasional befuddlement that seems out of place. Lacking is a sure-footed gentleness just beneath an austere demeanor that's come to define Atticus.
The chief culprit in all this is Sergel's script, which makes the fatal mistake or, depending on your view, necessary error, of placing a narrator on stage to advance the story and add context in ways a stage drama cannot. Monica Bell plays Jean Louise Finch, Scout all grown up, with great energy and passion. But her continual presence on stage begins to feel like the lurching steps of a chaperone whenever Axelson, Nick Denhalter (Jem), and Bailey Duncan (Dill) gather to conspire for another chance at teasing Boo Radley out of his house.
None of this, of course, means Lee's story suffers. It's too moving to wilt under even the biggest limitations. Axelson and Kildare both pull off the crucial scene of shaming Tom Robinson's would-be lynch mob. The festival's cast delivers a great courtroom scene showdown. Most notable is Meaghan Sullivan's pained portrayal of Mayella Ewell. Her back against the wall for betraying the "rigid code" of race in her small Southern town, she unleashes a fury of denial and desperation that's utterly convincing.
The anguish of racial injustice and the maddening psychology of racism ensure that "To Kill a Mockingbird" will remain a story worth telling regardless of format. Judging by the audible sniffles and moist eyes following Thursday night's opening performance, mine is a minority opinion.
Even in disagreements such as these, Lee and the play teach us well.
"People generally see what they look for," Judge Taylor tells the courtroom, "and hear what they listen for."
"To Kill a Mockingbird" Bottom line • A disappointing vehicle for Lee's famed book, but well rendered and earnest by a cast that understands the power of its story.
When Â» Through Sept. 1; shows Monday-Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Check festival website for exact dates and times.
Where Â» Randall L. Jones Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah State University, 315 W. Center St., Cedar City.
Info Â» Visit http://www.bard.org or call 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878.
Running time • Two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.