One of the proverbial difficulties in theater is how to make goodness interesting. The Devil has all the good tunes, as they say. To Kill a Mockingbird, currently on the boards at the UNO Downtown Theater, is a case in point. Atticus Finch, the idealistic lawyer who drives the story forward, is a straight-ahead good guy. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for the role in the renowned 1962 movie version of Harper Lee's novel.
At the UNO Downtown Theater, Greg DiLeo plays Atticus, and this versatile actor does a marvelous job. What people generally remember about DiLeo (in that vague sort of way that we remember things) is good looks and a great deal of charm. That's true as far as it goes. But DiLeo, himself an attorney by day, has also racked up an impressive list of character parts -- a cockney chauffeur in Grand Hotel, for instance, and a singing hillbilly in Smoke on the Mountain.
Atticus Finch is a lawyer living in Maycomb, Ala., during the Great Depression. He is a widower, raising his two children by himself. Atticus marches to his own demanding drummer. To the annoyance of many of his co-citizens, Atticus undertakes the defense of an African-American man who is accused of raping a white girl.
To his children, Atticus seems a bit of a stick in the mud. He likes to read, but he doesn't go for the "normal" things that "normal" dads do, like guns, hunting and playing football with their kids. In Mockingbird, Atticus is saved somewhat from "the odor of sanctity," by an incident in which he shoots a rabid dog. He admits afterward that he was "the deadest shot around" in his younger days. He also has a few good quips. For instance, when the villainous Mr. Ewell (Bernard Blanchard) -- father of the alleged victim -- spits in his face, Atticus doesn't react, but allows himself to mutter, "I wish he didn't chew tobacco."
But if Atticus is somewhat somber, he has the staunch rectitude of a man determined to do what he thinks is right. His speech to the jury is full of a redeeming and passionate honesty. Does DiLeo's day job as a lawyer aid him in this performance? Who can say? He's not a Cockney chauffeur, but he sure fooled me in Grand Hotel. In any case, like many great stories, Mockingbird walks a fine line between pathos and sentimentality. DiLeo deserves much of the credit for its credibility.
The rest of the cast does a good job of creating a world in which the dramas take place. I use the plural, because there are at least two dramas: the drama of the trial and the drama of the children. The first is obvious enough. A man's life is at stake for a crime he didn't commit. The second has to do mainly with "Scout," Atticus' daughter, who narrates the story as a grown-up and participates in it as a child. Clearly, she loves him, but in the course of the trial, she comes to understand something deeper about his nature.
Among other standouts in the cast are Mary Lou Bensabat as the narrator, Glasper Irons as Calpurnia, Ashley Ricord as the alleged victim, Avery White as the accused, Glen Gomez as the prosecutor and Daisey Rosato, Garrison Linn and Tyler Richier as the kids.
Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is quite well known as a novel and a movie. The play version is more obscure. Christopher Sergel adapted the story for the stage in London in 1980s. And we are indebted to director Tommye Myrick for bringing it to New Orleans.
Myrick is one of New Orleans' most active and most accomplished African-American directors. As those in the theater community well know, her work has tended to focus on issues of relevance to the African-American community. Certainly, To Kill a Mockingbird has a core concern about justice and the way justice is refracted in the distorting lens of racial prejudice. But the idea of justice goes beyond any limiting categories. The difficulty of doing the right thing against the social pressure of one's peers is a universal theme, as is the struggle for understanding between a child and a parent. Director Myrick is clearly open to the humanity of all the characters and their motives -- even the "human-all-too-human" motives of the villains. I do have some quibbles. The auditorium makes it hard at times to catch the lines. The narrator, at times, seems extraneous to the action. And I lost track of what was going on with the kids when they were making comments from the balcony of the courthouse. But the honesty of the performances and skill of the direction outweighed the momentary faults.
- Tyler Richier, Daisy Rosato and Garrison Linn co-star in To Kill a Mockingbird, which concludes this weekend at the UNO Downtown Theater.