The story’s difficult moral issues are a given; but bringing this acclaimed book to the stage presents some unique challenges.
So says Betsy Bisson, director of the upcoming Flat Rock Playhouse production of To Kill a Mockingbird. To evoke the shifting time strata, the Playhouse will make shrewd use of screens to depict a semimaterialized, grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she narrates the sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious childhood memories of depression-era Alabama that are the heart of Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel).
“I’m excited about the screen. It helps [represent] the concept of the [events] as hanging in the grown-up Jean Louise’s memory — you actually see the adult character, lit from behind [while the young Scout is onstage], and that’s what makes the set work,” explains Bisson, who also co-directed Flat Rock’s production of The Sound of Music.
The story itself needs no such adornment to ring true with viewers: Lee wove the themes of love, racism, pride and justice so deeply through the various plot lines that the book’s popularity has never worn thin. Equally cherished was the 1962 movie version, a cinematic coup that actually did justice to the novel’s flavor and intent.
“In [staging the play], we’re fighting with memories of the book and the movie. The movie can go all over the place, and we can’t,” Bisson says about the classic that starred Gregory Peck as Scout and Jem’s father — venerable attorney Atticus Finch.
Instead, notes Bisson, “We have a suggestive set.”
The moral and narrative crux of the story is the trial of a black man who has been falsely accused of beating and raping a white woman. Besides the still-pertinent racial issues, the ageless appeal of courtroom drama helps ensure the story’s relevance to today’s audiences.
These and other tried-and-true elements also make the production a perfect choice for this year’s Project Playhouse, Bisson feels. Each September, Flat Rock chooses a work to present, free of charge, to more than 2,000 high-school students in Henderson and Transylvania counties. The 6-year-old program has been an unprecedented success, the director maintains.
“We started in 1993 with The Glass Menagerie,” she recalls, “but To Kill a Mockingbird is more apropos than some plays we’ve had in recent years, [because] it’s assigned reading in Henderson County high schools. They’ve all been exposed to the book.”
The program, says Bisson, “presents plays to high schoolers [the way] plays are supposed to be presented — not in the gym, with bad light and questionable acoustics.”
Before each performance, a playhouse representative visits classes to prepare students for the experience, giving lessons in appropriate theater behavior. “We have far more requests for performances than … we can offer,” says the director.
In addition to special Project Playhouse performances, however, the play will have a limited run before regular audiences, giving local theatergoers a chance to get in on the action.
This year’s production stars many local children in principal roles. (The sheer number of performances requires more than one actor to portray the young characters.) Playing Scout will be Shelby Huntley and Kelsey Stout; brother Jem will be played by Scott Whittemore and Will Hartzog; and their friend Dill by Nick Kepley and Jake Krickhan. (The production also includes performances by such Flat Rock favorites as Karen Howell, playing the adult Scout, and Peter Thommason as Atticus Finch.)
“It’s always amazing working with children,” says Bisson. “I dealt with 8- to 16-year-olds who were auditioning, and we discussed what the book was about and came up with all kinds of concepts — the black/white issue, the child/parent relationship, [the fact that] moral courage is not always embraced.”
To Kill A Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only recognized work, which gives it an oddly suspended power. Far from fading over time, the questions the book raised so many years ago have actually increased their resonance, Bisson believes.
“The story remains relevant, because we haven’t learned its lesson yet,” she states. “The questions are [still] unanswered.”