Morality and memory guide ‘Mockingbird’

Posted March 28, 2011, at 3:47 p.m.
Last modified March 29, 2011, at 10:58 a.m.

Finding the right people to play Scout, Jem and Dill was a challenge for Scott R.C. Levy when he began casting for Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which starts in previews on Wednesday, March 30.

The book and subsequent theatrical adaptation have a hallowed place in American culture, and finding five Bangor-area kids (three boys and two girls, aged 9-13) who could take on such big, important parts was something that Levy was determined to do.

“It absolutely had to be cast locally,” said Levy, who directs the show. “It’s Scout’s story, and the entire story is seen through the lens of childhood. It’s her memories. We started auditioning kids back in the summer, but we didn’t cast it until the winter.”

Fortunately, Levy found five talented young actors to fill the roles. Ten-year-old Ali Cottrell and 9-year-old Brooke Jones share the role of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, daughter of the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, played here by New York-based Equity actor Matthew Conlon. Ten-year-old Nathan Manaker and Noam Osher alternate as Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, Scout’s best friend, and 13-year-old Nick Danby takes on the role of Jeremy “Jem” Finch, Scout’s older brother.

“I basically jumped in the air and smiled really big when I found out I got the part,” said Manaker. “Then I asked how much I was going to get paid.”

The five young stars seem full to bursting with energy and enthusiasm, bouncing around the Bangor Opera House and quickly developing bonds with the 14 other adult cast members. “Mockingbird” has one of the biggest casts a PTC production has had in years. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get right down to business, as soon as stage manager Meredith Perry tells the actors to take their places.

They also have a far deeper understanding of what the story means, and who their characters really are, than their young ages suggest.

“I like Scout because she’s a tomboy, and she stands up for herself,” said Cottrell. “She rubbed Walter Cunningham’s nose in the dirt. She knows right from wrong.”

“Dill is wise beyond his years,” said Manaker. “He’s always planning something.”

Nick Danby, son of Bangor Daily News political cartoonist George Danby, already had a socio-political mindset — he plans on running for president of the United States in 2040. He’s read the book on which the play is based, and he’s moved by its themes of racial injustice and social progress.

“It makes me think about American history, and about the bad things in our past,” he said. “We have to learn about the past so we can do things right in the future.”

“Mockingbird,” of course, is a hallmark of American literature. PTC’s production, on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication and Pulitzer Prize win, was chosen in part because of its continued cultural relevance.

“It is the quintessential American novel, and the themes present in the book are still important today,” said Levy. “I think a lot of our audience may not have read it since they were in grade school, so it’s really great to be able to travel back to Alabama and live in the 1930s for a little bit. It presents a specific time and place.”

That time and place is one where racism was not only a reality, but an institution. “Mockingbird” is as much about an interesting southern family as it is about a man unjustly accused of a heinous crime, simply because of the color of his skin. The play does not shy away from using an ugly racial slur in a number of scenes. Though an America in which that can happen seems incredibly far away, the lessons it teaches never lose importance.

“Atticus is clearly a man of rare courage … he exemplifies the idea that sometimes you do things, despite whatever the outcome might be, simply because it’s the right thing to do,” said Matthew Conlon, who is making a PTC debut as the iconic fictional lawyer. “He’s heroic, in his way, and kind of an iconoclast. It’s big shoes to fill, and roles like this are the reason I became an actor.”

Conlon’s family has a long history in the law; his grandfather, father and brother were all lawyers, and he briefly attended law school before launching his acting career.

“I think because of that, and growing up in that environment, I’ve always had a high barometer when it comes to what’s true and what’s right,” said Conlon. “I think Atticus does that in a way that’s not heavy-handed. He has tremendous humility. I read the book a number of times before I came to Maine to rehearse, so I’ve been living with his character for a while now.”

PTC’s “Mockingbird” boasts a spare, ghostly set by Erik D. Diaz, that is evocative of a small southern town in the 1930s. Lex Liang designed the muted, simple costumes, from checkered dresses to denim coveralls, which, along with Bradley King’s warm, sympathetic lighting, gives the play a hazy, old-fashioned glow.

The cast includes two other Equity actors. Delissa Reynolds is Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper, and Joseph Lane, known to PTC audiences as the 2009 Ebenezer Scrooge, is the Reverend Sykes. Kena Anae of New York City is the wrongly accused Tom Robinson. It is rounded out by a who’s who of Bangor area actors, including Allen Adams, Alison Cox, Marcia Douglas, Shaun Dowd, John Elliott, Jenny Hart, Rich Kimball, Ron Lisnet, Arthur Morison and Alice Philbrick.

“The way we staged the play means the audience will feel like it’s part of the action,” said Levy. “It’s got a bit of an ‘Our Town’ feel, in that sense. It’s something that will speak to everyone, of all ages.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” opens in previews on Wednesday, March 30. Opening night is Friday, April 1. It runs Thursdays-Sundays through April 17. For tickets, visit penobscottheatre.org, or call 942-3333.

2011-2012 PTC season announced

Two major announcements were made by the Penobscot Theatre company last week. First came the productions that will comprise the 2011-2012 season for the company. Then came the announcment that longtime PTC director Nathan Halvorson has been named interim producing artistic director, starting after outgoing Scott R.C. Levy leaves in June for a new job in Colorado.

“Penobscot Theatre has been my artistic home since 2005,” said Halvorson, in a prepared statement. “Some of the most indelible moments of my career have occurred within the walls of The Bangor Opera House. I am beyond thrilled to serve as the interim Producing Artistic Director during the first half of the 2011-2012 season and to build upon the great successes that Scott attained during his tenure.”

Halvorson has directed more than 20 productions at PTC, including crowd favorites like “Forever Plaid,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” He is currently studying for an MFA in directing at the University of Iowa, from which he will be taking academic leave for one semester to come to Bangor. He will hold the interim position until December.

The 2011-2012 season announcement, also made last week, reveals a season that highlights Maine playwrights, features two high-energy musicals and two comedies and debuts a brand new play. The full season is listed below.

“Last Gas” by John Cariani (Sept. 9-25)

The newest full-length play from Presque Isle’s own John Cariani, who wrote the popular “Almost, Maine.” The story returns to Cariani’s beloved Aroostook County, to a mini-mart run by Nat Paradis. His world gets turned upside-down when his old flame comes back to town.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” by Roger Bean (Oct. 26-Nov. 13)

A female answer to “Forever Plaid,”  just set in the late 1960s. From Peggy Lee to Aretha Franklin, the show tells the story of a girl group reuniting for its 10-year high school reunion.

“A Christmas Story” by Philip Grecian (Dec. 9-24)

A theatrical adaptation of the story by Jean Sheperd, on which the holiday favorite film was based. BB guns, leg lamps and tongues frozen to flagpoles.

“Boeing-Boeing” by Mark Camoletti, adapted by Beverly Cross (Feb. 8-26)

An English adaptation of the French play, involving one Lothario messing up his three airline hostess paramours. A classic farce, with swinging doors and lots of belly laughs.

“Ink “ by Alice Van Buren (March 28-April 15)

Winner of the audience favorite award at PTC’s 2010 Northern Writes play festival, “Ink” tells the true story of Mary Rowlandson, who was captured by Native Americans during the 17th century King Phillip’s War, and later wrote a book about it.

“Xanadu,” based on a book by Douglas Carter-Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne (May 30-June 17)

A stage adaptation of the cult classic, so-bad-it’s-amazing 1980 film. Olivia Newton John, synthesizers and rollerskates. ‘Nuff said.

Sixth Annual Northern Writes New Play Festival (June 21-July 2)

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the play takes place in Georgia. It takes place in Alabama. In addition, an earlier version of the article erroneously stated that Kena Anae is a member of Actor’s Equity; he is not.

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