The quintessential tale of segregationist injustice will come to the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre stage this week. Forty-seven years after Harper Lee published her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the racism, white privilege and strained ethics of rural Alabama circa 1935 remain as timely as the nightly news. Think Susan Smith—who murdered her children and claimed a black man had done the deed—or Darryl Hunt, a black man convicted in 1984 of a rape/murder he didn’t commit, who spent almost 20 years in the North Carolina prison system, 10 of them after he was exonerated by DNA evidence.
The book is assigned reading in high-school English classes and is regarded as both canonical and groundbreaking for its depiction of race relations in the Old South and for its date of publication. Integration was, to put it mildly, a hot topic at that juncture. It nabbed Lee the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, while a film version of the story collected three Academy Awards in 1962, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s wooden portrayal of Atticus Finch. In 1988, the stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel was first produced in Greenwich, England.
But the movie elides one of the most potent details of Lee’s original work. Following Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict, the convict is gunned down by a deputy as he tries to escape. Finch in the film tells his children, “He aimed to wound him but the bullet killed him instead.” Hollywood had sanitized Lee’s far more powerful scenario, in which 17 bullets hit Robinson’s body. It reminds one of Amadou Diallo, whose corpse contained 19 bullets, or Sean Bell, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who between them took 18 bullets out of a fusillade of 50 shots fired by New York cops.
At the end of the film, another subtle switch occurs when Sheriff Heck Tate tells Finch that he plans to lie about Bob Ewell’s death and report that Ewell fell on his own knife. Tate explains that Ewell was responsible for Robinson’s demise and that his death settles the score.
An eye for an eye, as the Old Testament would have it.
We are left thinking that however the kitchen knife came to land in Ewell’s chest, it was his own weapon. But the novel poses a more difficult scenario. Finch knows that Tate found Ewell’s weapon, a switchblade. The kitchen knife belonged to Arthur “Boo” Radley, who had gone out armed, presumably to safeguard the children he had tentatively befriended. The takeaway message of the movie is that Atticus Finch was a stainless pillar of a man, an absolute defender of the law in the face of vehement, even violent disapproval from his community.
But the book tells us something more complicated—that justice and law enforcement may be different, and that even Finch is willing to accept a lie when it serves a personally defined greater good.
Director Bill Gregg says the stage version is much truer to the novel in these and other scenes. “The line about the 17 shots is used verbatim,” he reports. Gregg, who has been artistic director of SART since 2001, also directed Mockingbird in 2001 at the American Theater Company in Chicago. “Remember,” he adds, “The Motion Picture Code was pretty strict in 1962. There were things they couldn’t portray.”
Special-guest actor Michael Goodwin of Richmond will fill the enviable role of Atticus Finch. Goodwin has long experience on Broadway and on TV and is the Actor’s Equity Association Artist in Residence at the University of Virginia. Of his role, Goodwin says, “I mostly want to convey Finch’s humanity and compassion for others as well as his family.”
Asheville Community Theatre veteran Savannah Crespo has been cast as the 8-year-old Scout. Unlike those behind the Hollywood Mockingbird, “my character,” she says, “is really bold, and not afraid of much.”
“I’ve been having to work on that.”
Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre presents To Kill a Mockingbird at Owen Theatre on the Mars Hill College Campus Wednesday, June 27, through Sunday, July 8. Wednesday-through-Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. $10-$28. Senior and student discounts available. 689-1239. www.sartheatre.com