SALT LAKE CITY — John Sweeney is no stranger at Hale Centre Theatre. For the past 13 years, the stage director has ensured that Ebenezer Scrooge finds Christmas joy in the theater's annual rendition of Dickens' “A Christmas Carol.” He has guided actors through the company's many popular Disney musicals. But this month, he “sinks his teeth into something new” by directing a production of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Set to run April 15 through May 20, the show stays close to the beloved novel, following siblings Jem and Scout Finch in the racially divided town of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935 as their father, Atticus, fights to defend an innocent black man against a potential death sentence.
“‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of the most important pieces of American literature,” Sweeney said in an interview with the Deseret News. “The Library of Congress produced a piece ranking the works of literature that have had the most effect in people’s lives. The Bible came in at No. 1, and interestingly enough, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ came in in the top five.”
Sweeney wants audiences to realize that although these characters are from 1935, Harper Lee wrote about them because the issues they faced were still happening in the 1960s, and to some effect, today.
“We would like to think of this story as a timeless classic when really it’s a timely classic,” Sweeney said.
Because this story is considered such an important classic, HCT plans to make the production available free of charge to local schools from seventh to 12th grade. This is made possible through donations from Mountain America Credit Union and Rocky Mountain Power.
“This show is too important and too exquisite to miss,” said Sally Dietlein, HCT vice president and executive producer. “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a story of innocence, love, justice and courage. It’s a heart-warming tale that comes to life on the stage with beautiful set design and remarkable acting.”
Dietlein added that the characters will “make you smile, cry and laugh” throughout the duration of the play. She highlighted the relationship between Scout and Jem, and how it “shines through” on stage.
Mia and Anson Bagley, 11 and 13, who are cast as Scout and Jem (M/W/F), have the unique opportunity of being siblings both on and off the stage.
“It has been really fun,” Mia said about working on stage with her older brother.
Anson added, “It makes it easier, especially during the emotional scenes because it feels more real.”
Their mother, Jean Bourne, actually has three children in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Her oldest daughter, Camrey Bagley Fox, plays the role of Mayella Ewell.
“I really feel blessed,” Bourne said. “The kids work hard and audition for a lot of stuff and a lot of the time they don't get cast, so to have three get cast in one show is amazing. I love that they are having this experience together.”
Throughout the rehearsal process, Mia and Anson needed to memorize about 80 pages of script, a challenge by any standards. But the process did help them understand their characters in greater depth.
“Even though Jem is young and not very mature, he develops an understanding of the world by the end of the play,” Anson said of his character, Jem. “He really shows more grit than you expect compared to the beginning of the play.”
Mia, who plays the role of Scout, loves her character because “she’s very spunky and innocent, and she cares about people.”
“This play should be required viewing for everyone,” Bourne said. “I feel like if people could see things from another person's perspective, they would be a lot more compassionate. This play does that."
Both Bourne and Sweeney agree that this production is crucial because it aims to teach people the importance of being fair and nonjudgmental.
“What I would like audiences to take away from this is to be thoughtful how it relates to situations of unfairly judging someone else, when in reality they are innocent,” Sweeney said. “To kill a mockingbird means to destroy innocence. That is what has occurred to the characters in this story. Sadly, in a timely way, it has occurred to too many people in the news.”
HCT will present more than 45 consecutive performances of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and matinees Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Additional matinees are available throughout the week at 4 p.m. No children under the age of 5 are permitted in the theater. Ticket prices are $34 for adults and $18 for youths (K-12).
For ticket information, call 801-984-9000, go to hct.org, or visit the box office at 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive in West Valley City.
Content advisory: Portrays racial biogtry and focuses on the trial a young black man accused of violating a woman. It does include a racial slur from the time period. HCT recommends the play for ages 12 and older.