Depression-era play tells classic tale that still holds value

CORRECTION: The headline was changed from “Sixties-era play” to “Depression-era” play to accurately reflect the time in which the story took place. The book that the play was based on was written in the 1960s, but the story took place in the 1930s.

Cries of racial injustice can be heard from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland, but Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” goes back to a time when racial inequality was widely accepted and protected by law in the south.

Equality has come a long way since the days of the Black Codes, which restricted the freedom of African Americans, and Jim Crow Laws that justified segregation. The journey to racial equality hasn’t reached its final destination, but Lee’s story is a reminder of how far we have come.

Excerpts read center stage from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel were delivered as invitations to the memories of a young girl during a time of hardships and racial injustice.

The classic 1960 novel was adapted as a play by Christopher Sergel in 1990, which was presented by the Pierce Theater Department for the first time on May 1. The opening night performance was commendable.

Birds sang in the day and crickets chirped at night, while the projector screen provided visual accompaniment to the transitions of daytime to night. A noticeably missing sound was the melody of locusts, whose crescendo starts at dusk and lasts through the night in Alabama during summer.

Set designer Gene Putnam was able to visually deliver in his creation of the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It was a scene that any small town Alabamian would recognize as home.

The stage reflected a small southern town. The houses had picket fences with front porches adorned with flowers, and seats that welcomed a relaxed southern tempo. They had railings that could serve as an ever-changing playground for imaginative children.

Scout (Elyse Hamilton) was able to channel her inner child. She honed in on childlike innocence and curiosity. Her small stature and the raise of her brow in juvenile wonder gave the character life. Hamilton was charismatic and believable.

Light-hearted humor, mostly delivered by Maudie Atkinson (Danielle Handel), provided moments of reprieve from the darker themes of racism and prejudice.

Atkinson also provided narratives throughout the play, and when she did different covers of the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” appeared on the large screen behind her.

Bob Ewell (Matt DeHaven) was played perfectly.  The dirty overalls, the contemptible squint in his eyes and the drunken stagger in his step embodied the characteristics of a detestable, backwoods racist.

When Ewell shouted, “I seen that nigger yonder attackin’ my Mayella,” while being questioned at the court trial, it was an uncomfortable moment of truth that captured the deep-seeded hatred in his heart.

The roar of thunder and strikes of lightning were frightening, as Scout and Jem (Matthew Markham) were being hunted by Ewell in the dark. Lighting and sound design were able to inject the fear of the children into the atmosphere, which was infectious.

The Gospel Singers chants and songs were reminiscent of old negro spirituals that personified the way blacks from that time found strength, which was through faith in God and song.

The choice for them to sing “Lord Help Me to Hold Out” after Tom Robinson (Jean Hyppolite) was found guilty of rape was a smart use of song to express the mood of blacks whose feelings and thoughts were minimal in the play.

Their somber, harmonious songs hypnotized and added a supportive layer to the show.

This classic tale deserves to be seen. It evokes sadness, pity, hatred, laughter and hope. Senses were stimulated as sights and sounds incorporated them into the production.

The final performances of “To Kill A Mockingbird” will be May 8-10.