WEST VALLEY CITY — When Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, it sold more than 10 million copies worldwide in just six years.
Now, this timeless story has made its way to the Hale Centre Theatre stage, and will run through May 20. John Sweeney, the director of HCT’s production, wrote in his director’s notes, “We most often come to the theatre to escape our lives, but today, we will come to the theatre to think and reflect.”
And that is exactly what the cast of HCT’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” accomplished with its outstanding performance on Tuesday evening.
The production team did a beautiful job of setting the scene. The circular stage moved easily between a backyard setting of flowers, a large treehouse and a tire swing to a full courtroom, placing the audience squarely in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.
Not only did the set look beautiful and realistic, the background sounds of birds singing, wind chimes tinkling and crickets chirping added to the believability of the experience.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and spent more than 80 weeks on The New York Times' best-seller list. The award-winning film version staring Gregory Peck came out the following year, further establishing the story as an American classic. Today, the story and its characters are familiar: the trial of the innocent black man Tom Robinson, his white accusers Mayella Ewell and her abusive father, Bob Ewell, and of course, the emotional journey of Robinson's dedicated and upright lawyer Atticus Finch.
But it's Finch’s children, 6-year-old Scout and 10-year-old Jem, who serve as the audience's entry point for this powerful tale. As they learn from their father that doing right isn't always popular, audiences experience the children's growth as they come to learn of the evils of racism and stereotyping in the world.
Thankfully, the children in the show Tuesday night — Alyssa Buckner as Scout Finch, Matthew Rees as Jem Finch as well as Cooper Johnson as the siblings’ friend, Dill Harris — proved to be talented and mature beyond their years. They easily won the audience over in their loving and humorous performance, which was perfectly balanced with poignant and profound thoughts.
The quality of the entire cast was superb, and each actor’s efforts added to the overall passion of the show. Betsy West plays the role of Maudie Atkinson, the show's narrator, with a soft Southern accent was comforting and engaging, bringing both tears and laughter to the theater.
The characters of Mayella and Bob Ewell were played by Collette Astle and Josh Richardson. Portraying the antagonists of the story, Astle and Richardson were convincingly hateful and impressive in their roles.
Other notable characters include the Finch family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia (Rita Martin), the town’s sheriff, Heck Tate (Ric Starnes) and the convicted (yet innocent) man himself, Tom Robinson (Alec Powell). Powell’s performance in the courtroom had a gentle humility as he defended his story with a soft and genuine kindness.
Mitch Hall, in his role as Atticus Finch, beautifully captured the essence of this iconic character with his incredible memorization and steady performance. The second act, which primarily takes place in the courtroom, was Hall’s time to shine. He received an ovation after he finished Finch’s monologue, which served as not only a defense of Tom Robinson, but a lesson for everyone in the theater.
Hall’s portrayal of the working father was filled with goodness and believability and caused the audience members to leave the theater deep in thought, proving that quality theater offers a good opportunity to consider things from someone else's point of view — to walk around in someone else's skin, as Finch would say.
HCT’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a powerful portrayal of love, acceptance, heartache and the end of innocence. These are not themes — nor a tale — that will leave American society anytime soon.
Content advisory: “To Kill a Mockingbird” contains racist language, mild violence and discussion about rape and abuse.