Arts & Events

Eye From the Aisle: Two birds, one stone—Mockingbird at Center Rep, Nightingale at Aurora

By John A. McMullen II
Wednesday April 13, 2011 - 12:41:00 PM
Michael Ray Wisely, James Hiser
Michael Ray Wisely, James Hiser
Beth Wilmurt, Amy Crumpacker, Charles Dean
David Allen
Beth Wilmurt, Amy Crumpacker, Charles Dean

Sometimes a reviewer gets a break and in the same week goes to see two plays with avian titles so that he can quip a little in his headline; but these plays have more similarities than just the title subjects. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Walnut Creek’s Center Rep has first-act problems but an exciting second act; Eccentricities of a Nightingale at Aurora Theater likewise fails to deliver the empathy and tension required for the genre. 

When selecting a production that features child characters that are burnished into our collective literary and cinematic memory like Scout, Jem, and Dill from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD--the kids better be exceptional—or else pick another play. This is not to criticize child actors—these three are all articulate and present and audible—but rather to fault their tutors and producers. They speak in those bland and happy expressions that exc lude character and emotion and only happen on the stage or in 1940’s movies. Real children’s moods turn on a dime, by turns sullen and manic, nasty and cute, as ever-mercurial little people. When Scout and Atticus talk together, they have real rapport; Hunter Milano as Dill has a moment of despair when faced with injustice. Outside of that, it’s kind of the “Golly, gee, gosh” school of acting. This is not criticism to discourage young talent, but written as your consumer advocate, since tickets are $40. 

There is a lack of dramatic tension in the playing of the first act, even though the elements are a “malevolent phantom” who never leaves his scary house in daylight, a mad dog loose on the street, a heinous sex crime, and facing down a lynch mob. These are edge-of-the-seat propositions. In Director Michael Butler’s hands, they play like a community theatre version of “Our Town.” It is as if the conflict were trying to be downplayed, which is the opposite of drama. The adaptation by Christopher Sergel is playable, and preserves the essential story and integrates the important characters. 

Olive Lowe as young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch speaks spritely and quickly with a believable if muted Southern dialect. Thirty years later, our narrator (Suzanne Irving)—who is Scout as an adult—speaks with a drawl like molasses—Southern comfort-sweet and twice as slow; this “playing the accent” is an obstacle to putting emotion and intention into the phrasing, though it might make the exposition clearer for elderly onlookers. Allison L. Payne as Calpurnia, their housekeeper, has a robust frame and chastises with a soft-heart, and thus does not capture the bony truculence and the martinet presence that oppresses Jean Louise in Harper Lee’s novel. 

Dan Hiatt, a recognized Bay Area talent, plays Atticus Finch as mild-mannered and older than the character’s reputed 50 years, and goes light on the moral ambiguity Miss Lee imparts to him or the dignitas authority of Gregory Peck for which he won an Oscar. Director Butler revealed in a recent interview that he thought Peck miscast. 

When Hiatt lifts the rifle in the hot afternoon, it is without the image-changing dramatic moment that we all anticipate. His love and care for the children has no counterpoint; he is all-good, all-knowing, and thereby, not very interesting. He mentions his indecision about integration in passing, but then so did Lincoln. Hiatt’s courtroom cross-examination is convincing and tense, and in that extended scene he shines. 

The Atticus character has been a judicial avatar: Stephen Lubet in the Michigan Law Review opines, 

"No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession,” before he questioned whether Atticus Finch “is a paragon of honor or an especially slick hired gun.” Lubet also points out that Finch attacks the assaulted woman to discredit her—which plays great when she’s falsely accusing her attacker—but a tactic at which progressive-minded people would ordinarily recoil. 

Melpomene Katakolos’ set design is weathered porches on a bare, raked set of planks curling into an upstage fence, which sets a bleak Alabama background and tends to reflect the black and white movie version —no steamy, green landscape of a small town Southern summer here. Kurt Landisman’s changing sky diorama is creative, but the lights in the first act are at low level and tend to lull, which is obvious when it brightens on the courtroom scene and wakes us up. 

In the second act, the adults are in play with some exceptional character actors who bring the courtroom drama of an inter-racial rape trial roaring to life. Tom Flynn is a delight as the Judge who proceeds gingerly with the foregone injustice but keeps a strict hand on his courtroom. The District Attorney is played by Michael Ray Wisely who looks like a cracker prosecutor—with his nasty good looks, he should be in the movies. 

Burly James Hiser and lithe Lina Makdisi both give deliciously over-the-top performances as an incestuous father-daughter duet that embodies po’ white trash and Klan-ish evil in the Jim Crow South of 1935. Bald, bullying Hiser in the Bob Ewell character is impudent to all, including the Judge—which could strain credulity unless you had the dubious fortune to grow up in Appalachia knowing his kind, kith and kin. 

Joseph Ingram as the sacrificial Black sheep is the very image of the frightened, well-intentioned defendant, back in the day where Black Folk stepped off the sidewalk to let White Folk pass by. Dorian Lockett has a powerful cameo as the Black Preacher, and versatile actor Henry Perkins saves the day if not the play with his last minute appearance as Boo. Stage combat choreography of Award-winner Dave Maier slips in this outing: even the children’s tag seems staged and the final combat is danced rather than frighteningly fought. 

In all, it’s worth seeing just to remember the book, but I’d buy my ticket at a Gold Star discount. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Center Rep, Lesher Center for the Arts ,Walnut Creek through April 30

Also set deep in Dixie with a feathery title is Aurora Theatre’s ECCENTRICIES OF A NIGHTINGALE in Berkeley. You may recognize it more readily as “Summer and Smoke” by Thomas Lanier Williams III, who you may recognize more readily as “Tennessee.” Geraldine Page and Jose Quintero reputedly began the Off-Broadway movement with this production. ECCENTRICITIES is an improved re-working of the original script. 

Like Mockingbird, this play was made into a film in the 60’s, with Page playing the main character of the preacher’s daughter Alma Winemiller in one of those atmospheric Williams’ treatments of the time, opposite exceedingly handsome, sexually-ambiguous Laurence Harvey. 

If a company is unearthing a minor 50-year old play of a major playwright, they’d better bring some fireworks to the production. Outside of the very good Fourth of July pyrotechnic lighting by Jim Cave, there are only three flashes of brilliance here. The first is an object lesson in how to play a Williams’ diva given by Amy Crumpacker who plays Alma’s deranged mother. She makes us see the images of a horrendous happening in a “Musee mecanique” (Remember the one at the Cliff House? It moved to Pier 45!). She makes palpable the soul-less symbolism of the mechanized puppets. She does this while making us fear for her sanity. If only daughter were more like mother, we might be more engaged and fear for our heroine’s soul and her sanity, and her arc would have so much more meaning. The second highlight is a loud, brash, and entertaining cameo of an overbearing widow by sexy songstress Leanne Borghesi in a straight and dowdy role. The final scene is the third, which parallels the scandalous tales the traveling salesman told Stanley about Blanche in “Streetcar” and gives us a shot of Mississippi back-alley sex. 

Beth Wilmurt is a terrific actress who knocked me out in “God’s Ear” as the neurotic, abandoned wife. 

Under the direction of Tom Ross, she delivers a modern, articulate, woman rather than a fragile, older virgin with hysterical tendencies in the Mississippi Delta circa 1910. Tennessee describes Alma, our heroine, with words he puts in the mouths of other characters: affected, lyric soprano, dramatic, talking wildly, laughing hysterically, with arms flying about. Ms. Wilmurt’s Alma is none of these, and does none of these. There is nothing bi-polar or neurotic in her demeanor that sets up the high drama or the tragic resolution. Her accent maintains the final “r” but drops the final “g” in “-ing” words; this seems the opposite of a conservatory-trained music teacher/minister’s daughter’s way of speaking in that time and place. She speaks with machine-gun cadence, which may have been mistaken for instability in that age and place, but her performance seems far too grounded for the role. Even her defloration is played as just another occurrence in her life without the assumed accompanying angst; although the young Williams’ sometimes-puerile symbolism pops up in this scene when their passion sparks and sputters in time with the log fire. 

It seems that Tennessee’s story is always infused into that of both male and female in his plays; he was reared by his Episcopal minister grandfather and his over-protective Southern Belle Grandmother (good program notes by M. Mansfield All of Williams’ plays are about our dark ids and sexual repression and abuse, and a first version of this play was first presented the same year he received the Pulitzer for “Streetcar.” 

Charles Dean as Alma’s censorious and oppressive minister father delivers a believable, dominating figure whose worry for his daughter’s future seems outweighed by concern about society’s view of her as unstable; he has borne the embarrassment of an unbalanced wife for too long. Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dr. John Buchanan Jr. does not mine the psychological gold in the plum role of Dr. John Jr., who is smothered by his overprotective mother played by Maria Pizza with sexual overtones like a young Mrs. Venable in “Suddenly Last Summer.” His attraction and ambivalence to Alma is played as a grounded, young, caring physician who does his familial duty but is unaffected by his maternal situation, which seems to this lifelong fan of Tennesee’s as missing the dramatic point. The constant interruptions of Alma and Dr. John’s meetings by his mother are repeated so often as a plot mechanism that it borders on humorous. 

Laura Hazlett’s Gibson-girl era costumes and Liliana Duque Pinero’s set are lovely, and perfectly period; however, the set changes sometimes take up to 40 seconds, which breaks the flow, even when covered with the soundtrack of songs from that time period. 

Half the house at the Sunday Matinee stood to applaud, which made me scratch my head. Regarding recommendations, I’ll have to pass on “Eccentricities” because it’s just not eccentric enough. 

ECCENTRICIES OF A NIGHTINGALE at Aurora Theatre through May 8