Cherie Messore Previews

First Look: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at Kavinoky Theatre

It takes grit to put America’s most revered work of literary art on stage, especially when another version is currently playing on Broadway.

When Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell programmed “To Kill a Mockingbird” for Kavinoky Theatre this season, she smartly obtained the rights to Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s celebrated novel. Kav was the last theatre in the country to capture the rights to this production before Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation opened in New York. Buffalo theatre aficionados may recognize the Kav’s production as the last show on stage at Studio Arena Theatre in 2008, produced in collaboration with Road Less Traveled Productions and directed by RLTP’s Scott Behrend.

This earlier adaptation of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel (voted America’s favorite book in PBS “The Great American Read” initiative last year) is more aligned with the adaptation staged every year in Lee’s native Monroeville, Alabama. It’s true to the novel, which is mostly revered and sometimes reviled for its poignant portrayal of injustice and racism in America’s deep south. Sorkin’s Broadway version has different point of view. O’Donnell says, “Aaron Sorkin changed Atticus Finch to be a rougher, tougher version of himself.”  In the Kav’s adaptation, O’Donnell says, “Atticus is the moral center. He doesn’t change. He knows what’s going to happen.”

Kavinoky’s director Kyle LoConti agrees.  She says even if the rights were available, “I don’t think [Sorkin’s] is the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ I am interested in telling,” Lo Conti says thoughtfully. “Our interest is being faithful to Harper Lee’s novel.”

This doesn’t mean we’re watching a 281-page novel turn its pages on stage. LoConti says, “Any adaptation from book to play is a ‘selective retelling’ since trying to cover everything in the book would be prohibitively long. This stage adaptation, I believe, selects the actions that reveal the most about the relationships of Scout to her surroundings,” she says.

In this production – like the book and the movie – Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, is recalling the events in her hometown as her father, attorney Atticus Finch, prepares to defend a black man at trial when he’s accused of raping a white woman. LoConti says, “The adult Jean Louise Finch is clearly looking through the eyes of an adult, and I hear so much of Atticus when she speaks, but when she is deep in the retelling of a particular incident, we also get to hear the young Scout coming through in her narration. It is crafted so deftly by Lee that it happens before we know it.” Actor Aleks Malejs will portray adult Scout.

Chris Avery will play Atticus Finch, Robyn Baun will portray Mayella Ewell, and Xavier Harris will portray Tom Robinson in the leading roles. Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill will be played by two teams of young actors. LoConti says, “The show really demands a lot from these six, so we needed actors that could hold their own with the adult cast…basic acting skills of course, but also the ability to inhabit these complex and beautifully written characters.”

While the novel or movie or stage adaptation may be familiar to most of the audience, the message is timeless. Author Lee published the book in 1960 about events that happened in 1933. Says LoConti, “It’s a beautiful coming of age story,  set in a less beautiful time and place. It is also a story that, sadly, still needs to be told and considered today.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is on stage at Kavinoky Theatre March 8-31. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets.