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No Merit Badges

Of all the theatrical hams that have wandered across the stage of American pop culture, none have endeared themselves as much as the tiny papier-mache morsel that wanders home atop the legs of Scout Finch near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. She has just appeared in a school pageant celebrating the agricultural products of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935; Harper Lee's heroine in the celebrated 1960 novel soon realizes that her father can't save the world.

More important, the ham scene pinpoints the moment in Lee's story in which Southern prejudice results in insidious violence. Through the crude peep holes of her costume, Scout, who is walking home through a dark woods after the play, sees a racist thug attack her brother Jem. Or, rather, she nearly does; her costume obscures exactly what happens. (As Mockingbird fans know, Jem and Scout are saved by the mysterious Boo Radley, the character who in the 1962 movie launched Robert Duvall's film career). Suffice it to say that Scout's big night at the theater enlarges her existence beyond anything she could ever have anticipated.

Unfortunately, no epiphanies are forthcoming in this stodgy and ill-conceived stage adaptation of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a production of which is now bruising the stage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. By the time the ham costume makes its appearance, late in Act Two, most of the audience has probably drifted off to sleep. Blame this disaster on adapter Christopher Sergel, who seems to have inhaled Horton Foote's screenplay only to regurgitate the most superficial aspects of it. It's not enough, for example, to retell one of the most cherished stories in American literature merely by having the characters of Scout, Jem, their father Atticus, and others march across the stage in the chronological order of their introduction in Lee's narrative.

After all, who doesn't remember the aching nostalgia that infuses Lee's story, in which Scout spends the summer watching her widowed father, an attorney, defend a black man accused of raping a white woman? Lee's novel transcends generations, less for its reading of bigotry in America than for its ability to capture the way a child perceives the world. And yet the courtroom scenes, in which Atticus categorically proves that his client Tom Robinson could not have inflicted some of the injuries on the bruised and battered Mayella Ewell, are (thanks to the film) Hollywood gold.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird too safe for modern audiences? If familiarity were the enemy of drama, then every story would be performed only once. Sitting through the Sergel adaptation -- a co-production of New Brunswick, New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater, and the Coconut Grove Playhouse -- I was stunned by how few surprises lurk in the show. Theatergoers know that it's possible to sit through a dozen different productions of, say, The Glass Menagerie and, during the great stagings, still feel the air sucked out of the room when an actor delivers a line already anticipated. No, the catch here is that Sergel (who also adapted Up the Down Staircase and Cheaper by the Dozen) hasn't figured out how to untie the story from Lee's narrative and present it with a compelling dramatic arc.

Indeed, unless you're familiar with the novel or the film, you're likely to be completely lost. Confronted with one low-key scene, in which the sheriff drops by and asks Atticus to take a particular case, it's impossible to glean what Scout means when she says that her life and those of her family were irrevocably changed at that moment. Without knowing the book, you can't tell what's at stake. Lost is Lee's indelible tying together of the story's three threads: the children's fascination with mysterious neighbor Boo Radley, their experience of the Robbins court case, and their re-evaluation of Atticus in a less idealized light.

For these revelations we have to rely on visits from the adult Scout, who drops in from time to time to introduce scenes and comment on the setups. This device is an attempt to capture the book's structure, in which Scout tells the story in flashbacks, and it's the only feature of the adaptation that works, despite a couple of drawbacks. Actress Suzanna Hay, who plays the adult Scout, is a tad more effervescent and sunny than the Scout of the book, and the narration points up Lee's frequent lapses into sentimentality and unabashed nostalgia. "Somehow it was hotter then," Scout says of her childhood. "Black dogs suffered on hot days."

As a result, this production of Mockingbird is essentially a radio play, narrated by Hay and sloppily punctuated by director Thomas Bullard. In some cases he seems to have instructed the cast to copy the mannerisms of the movie actors. Note to Will Stutts, who plays Atticus: Forget all the business that Gregory Peck does with his horn-rim glasses just before he shoots the mad dog. Show us how your Atticus behaves. A bigger problem is the way the children come across. Although all three are poised young performers (particularly Charlie Saxton's Dill, a pint-size Orson Welles in suspenders), none captures the audience's focus for more than a moment. Their performances are rushed, and that's unfortunate. The heart of To Kill a Mockingbird is the relationship between Scout and the audience.

If Scout is elusive in the first half of the play, she virtually disappears in the second. Here the trial takes center stage, and the children are eclipsed by the gratuitous dialogue in the courtroom. Stutts is an intriguing actor, but he's entirely miscast. He's supposed to be a tower of respectability and reserve, not a warm puppy. As the Ewells, the white-trash family that uses Tom Robinson to deflect its own ugly behavior, Michael George Owens and Janine Cogelia embody almost every cliche of drooling and twitching Southerners ever conceived. Cogelia, at least, gives Mayella Ewell some down-to-the-roots emotion. But Owens' Bob Ewell is a cartoon. He's evil enough as written; we don't need to see him foam at the mouth, too.

Tom Robinson is more icon than character. He could be played by a scarecrow, especially since Anthony Jones doesn't give him any new qualities. As for Keith Jochim's Boo Radley, he's a cipher, which is fine. Suzanna Hay's adult Scout is the emotional center of the production. But without a young Scout to hang a heartfelt tale on, all of the anti-bigotry speeches, the diatribes against ignorance, and the pathos for the falsely accused Tom Robinson don't add up to a ham bone.

Stage Whispers
It's official. The Florida Stage, in Manalapan, was just awarded a $100,000 grant from the Theatre Communications Group and the Pew Charitable Trust. The grant will allow the theater to bring in nationally known freelancer Benny Sato Ambush as director in residence. Ambush's mission is to guide the theater's multicultural initiative, which appropriately got something of a kick in the pants this past April when Ambush directed A Park in Our House by Cuban American Nilo Cruz. With that production, Florida Stage became the first theater to bring the work of the Miami-bred, and nationally noticed, playwright to South Florida.

Here's hoping that Ambush exerts some of his influence on the Florida Stage's play roster. The theater, generally ambitious, sophisticated, and forward-looking in its selection, is presenting a new season of four Florida premieres beginning next fall. While it's always great to see new works, the schedule -- featuring plays by Michael T. Folie (The Adjustment), Steven Dietz (Rocket Man), Doug Wright (Quills), and William Mastrosimone (Tamer of Horses) -- exclusively uses, um, white men. Spread some of that multiculturalism around, please.

To Kill a Mockingbird.
Adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee's novel; directed by Thomas Bullard; with Suzanna Hay, Mianna Saxton, Hank deLuca, Will Stutts, Charlie Saxton, Michael George Owens, Janine Cogelia, and Keith Jochim. Through June 7. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy; 442-4000.


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