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All Rise for To Kill A Mockingbird @ The Kavinoky

Author: Christina M. Abt 

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most cherished books in modern literature. Since the publication of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book in 1960, it has been translated into close to 40 languages and continues to sell a million copies a year worldwide. It has also been adapted into an Academy Award winning movie and two plays, the latest of which was adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter and Emmy-winning TV writer, Aaron Sorkin, and is currently onstage at New York City’s Shubert Theater.

The burden of that almost-six decades of reader devotion to Harper Lee’s novel and the widespread acclaim for the current Broadway theater adaptation is what the Kavinoky Theater now faces in staging one of the first regional productions of the Sorkin-based, To Kill A Mockingbird. How do you follow and maintain that high level of success?

In the case of this respected Buffalo performance venue, they have called upon 40 years of experience in producing quality, live theater to put together a cast with the talent, a crew with the skills and a set to meet the Mockingbird challenge on their own terms.

As the set plays a key role in this production, let’s begin there. This play is set in 1935 in two main settings: a courtroom, and a neighborhood in the imaginary rural town of Maycomb, Alabama. The personality of this town is key to the storyline. The audience needs to feel as if they are right in the midst of that neighborhood characterized by an oddball scary resident, a cranky old lady and her gardens, open land with places for kids to play and roam and a welcoming front porch swing connected to the home of town attorney, Atticus Finch and his children. The audience needs to become intimately seated in that courtroom as jurors, taking in the drama of the trial as well as the actions and reactions of those within it. Thanks to the Kavinoky crew of Designer, David King, Carpenter Scott Richardson and Lighting Designer Brian Cavanaugh and their staff, all of that happens in clever and effective ways.

The Kavinoky is one of a small number of theaters across the US to be given the rights to produce Aaron Sorkin’s’ adaption of To Kill A Mockingbird.

With the stage set, the onus then falls on the cast tasked with bringing Harper Lee’s words to life. Kyle Loconti’s direction made sure that task would be well met and performed by each one of her actors.

The lead character of Atticus Finch is played by Chris Avery. This is a demanding role with lengthy passages, amid pages of dialogue, that he must make his own. Avery tackles the task with the thoughtful strength and sensitivity required of his character. He excels at delivering the rapid-fire dialogue commanded of those who inhabit Sorkin’s written world, portraying a fierce allegiance to his southern heritage, his fellow man and their rights.

While Sorkin realigned the role of Atticus’ tomboy daughter, Scout, from protagonist to more of an observer, this crucial Mockingbird character is still front and center in the production. Actress Aleks Malejs seamlessly transports the audience along the timeline of Scout’s life as she transitions from a plot-revealing adult to an innocently tempestuous child. It is a thinly veiled incarnation of Harper Lee, herself, which Malejs achieves in a manner that makes the audience feel it’s her own, personal, narrative.

Scout’s childhood world is defined by her brother, Jem, and their summer visitor/next door neighbor, Charles Baker “Dill” Harris. The two characters are played by a rotating cast of actors, in this particular performance respectively being, Michael Seitz and Jacob Albarella. The duo serve as Scout’s corroborating guides through the Mockingbird story and both men excel at using their vocal and physical talents to transition the audience between memory and reality.

Two of the most compelling performances in this Kavinoky production are given by Patrick Moltane as Maycomb farmer, Bob Ewell and his daughter, Mayella, played by Robin Baun. Moltane uses every bit of his body in portraying the hateful anger and violent nature of his racist character. His physical appearance of unkempt hair and matted beard add to his menacing nature, expressed through aggressive motions and confrontational threats, as he accuses a Negro farmhand of raping his daughter.

Her father’s violent intensity controls Mayella and Baun portrays that intimidation to perfection. While her testimony of being raped by the accused Negro is convincing, it is her silent but compelling courtroom presence throughout the trial—eyes trained to look away, clenched fists glued to her lap, shoulders bent forward, awaiting punishment— all silent signs that allow the audience to suspect the life of perverse abuse she has endured at the hands of her father.

The central character of the trial is the accused, Tom Robinson. In this role, Xavier Harris is perfection as he strikes a performance balance between the fear of a black man living in the segregated south and the compassion of one human being for another in recognizing the bonds of slavery that define Mayella Ewell’s existence.

The conscience of the play comes in the character of Calpurnia, the housekeeper for the Finch Family.

The conscience of the play comes in the character of Calpurnia, the housekeeper for the Finch Family. Actress Shanntina Moore breathes life into the character of this black woman who continually tweaks her employer about his unrealized prejudices by challenging his thoughts, words and actions.

The Kavinoky cast is rich in supporting performances as well. Peter Palmisano wears the mantle of a small-town judge with appropriate aplomb and just the right amount of humanity and humor. Ray Boucher rings true as the prosecutor audiences loves to hate. Mary McMahon is perfection as Maycomb’s crabby and eccentric garden lady.  David Lundy comes close to stealing the show as Maycomb’s town drunk, Link Dees, using physical affectations to portray the undeserved alcoholic title he wears, while exquisitely exposing the truth of his tortured life.

One last note about the play’s costuming, created by Jessica Wegrzyn. The clothing designed for most every character in the cast not only portrayed the era of this story but helped define their personalities. The one glaring misstep for this reviewer was with Scout. The tradition of this character is a rough and tumble tomboy who willingly fights for whatever her heart demands. Historically that has translated into a child with a bowl haircut, wearing denim overhauls and sneakers. The madras plaid shirt, red leather belt, khaki slacks, sweet saddle shoes and trendy hairstyle of Ms. Malejs seemed the antithesis of that tomboy persona and, as a result, distracted from the sense of innocence needed to visually personify Scout.

The Kavinoky is one of a small number of theaters across the United States to be given the rights to produce Aaron Sorkin’s’ adaption of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is an honor to which they have admirably achieved as evidenced by audience reaction at the curtain call, in league with what has become the tagline for this play, all did rise.

The Kavinoky Production of To Kill A Mockingbird runs through December 8th.

Performance times:

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM

Saturdays at 3:30 PM

Sundays at 2:00 PM

For more information or tickets call:   716-829-7668 or go to the website.

Lead image – Photo Credit: Stephen Gabris | Actors: Chris Avery, Xavier Harris

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