The moral heft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains as powerful and relevant today as when it originally was published in 1960. So it comes as no surprise that Penobscot Theatre’s production of the classic American story packs a wallop. With its message of unwavering decency in the face of brutal ignorance, it’s hard not to leave the theater with a renewed respect for those who fought for freedom and justice when this country often did not uphold those values.
Atticus Finch, of course, is one of the great literary standardbearers for those people who fought the good fight. As the heroic lawyer, Matthew Conlon is stoic and direct, only breaking his poker face when his client, the wrongfully accused Tom Robinson (Kena Anae), is blatantly misrepresented in court. His presence in a scene drives the conflict to a head, whether he’s dealing with lawyers and judges, or with his own children. Conlon brings a balance and measure to the play that is much needed, with such a large cast and such big themes. Atticus Finch is an extremely well-known character with lots of preconceived notions about him, but Conlon manages to give the character vitality and realism.
Scout, Jem and Dill, played by Brooke Jones, Nick Danby and Noam Osher (Ali Cottrell and Nathan Manaker alternate performances with Jones and Osher), perform their roles with dutiful maturity. Jones shows a sparkle of her fictional father’s moral gravity, and she imbues Scout with frankness and intelligence. Danby is perfectly cast as the sometimes imperious Jem, and he clearly relishes the moments when he can dig into his lines, whether he’s angry or he’s trying to spook his sister. As Dill, Osher is delightfully mischievous, though he’s also a bit of the sad clown, as the story suggests. All three young actors are polished, and rarely missed a beat, though clearer enunciation would have helped audience members to hear exactly what they said, in some cases.
It’s painful to watch Kena Anae as Tom Robinson; the anger and revulsion one feels at the jury’s verdict are palpable, and seeing Anae onstage makes you feel for a moment that he is actually on trial. Ron Lisnet plays bad people incredibly well, and as Bob Ewell, the low-life father of Tom Robinson’s accuser, Mayella, he’s just plain evil. Rich Kimball as the prosecutor is slimy and smooth-talking, and between him and Lisnet, audience members are given a target on which to focus their feelings. All three actors, Anae, Lisnet and Kimball, are extremely effective.
The story is told through the words of the grown-up Scout, played by Jenny Hart, who performs much better when she’s involved in the plot than when she’s narrating the action. The narration feels forced, and takes the audience out of the action.
The overall design of the play, overseen by Erik and Holly Diaz, Bradley King and Lex Liang, gives everything a ghostly, vintage feel, from King’s beautifully lit nighttime scenes to Liang’s note-perfect 1930s costuming. The spare, movable set creaks and groans, and the wooden porch swing on the Finch house in particular is redolent of a time and place in America. As set designers, both Erik and Holly Diaz contribute as much to the atmosphere of PTC’s “Mockingbird” as any of the actors.
It would be easy to let the subject matter speak for itself and phone it in, but PTC’s nuanced take on this classic story doesn’t go for easy. It instead reaffirms and reinvigorates. Minor flaws aside, it’s a thoughtful, carefully crafted production.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs Thursdays-Sundays through April 17. For tickets, visit penobscottheatre.org, or call 942-3333.