At long last: To Kill a Mockingbird at Kavinoky Theatre

“To Kill A Mockingbird” plays at The Kavinoky Theatre until December 8.

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Some may think it’s also a sin to script-tamper with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel’s oft-staged theatrical adaptation, but that’s exactly what Aaron Sorkin did in his 2018 adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s currently playing on Broadway and in a unique twist of fate, it’s also on stage at Kavinoky Theatre to December 8.

. . . this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest.

If you missed the story last season, the Kav was all set to stage the 1963 Harper Lee-approved adaptation. Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell had what she thought was the iron-clad permission to open the show, despite the opening of its new Broadway adaptation. Due to some legal squabbling between Lee’s estate and the Broadway producer, O’Donnell received a ‘cease and desist’ order within days of opening night, which even made it to the front page of The New York Times. Because, as the adage decrees, ”the show must go on” O’Donnell, Production Stage Manager Norm Sham, and Director Kyle LoConti and the cast quickly, agilely and expertly mounted a stunning version of George Orwell’s 1984 in just 19 days. Within a couple weeks, the Broadway producer had a change of heart and offered O’Donnell the opportunity to add the Sorkin adaptation to the theatre’s 40th anniversary season.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong story, beloved space in American literature, and compelling messages prevail. Sorkin’s staging is different from the ‘original’ stage version that closed Studio Arena Theatre’s 2008 (and final) season.  There’s an adjusted point of view here that actually brings even more relevance to 2019 audiences in a sad and compelling way. It’s very worthy, and the Kavinoky cast  members– mostly the same as last season, minus the children – are powerful in their roles.

Sorkin gives a stronger voice to some key characters which add new depth to the story. The family housekeeper Calpurnia is –in the 1930s southern tradition – a black woman who has served this family for decades. Because Lee wrote this in the late 1950s, (before the Civil Rights Movement) her head would have bowed and her comments were to herself. This Calpurnia shares her point of view clearly and it’s not lost on her employer Atticus Finch. Sorkin brings a different sensibility to Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black man, too.  Sorkin has nuanced Atticus; he’s still his children’s hero but his very human flaws reflect other conflicts.

Under LoConti’s direction, this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest. While this reviewer is not a fan of adult actors portraying children, Aleks Malejs as Scout, Michael Seitz as Jem, and Jacob Albarella as Dill are feisty and fidgety perfection. Malejs in particular dug deep into her inner child to surface the body language and affectations of a six-year-old tomboy. Albarella is charmingly irritating as Dill, the neighbor’s nephew. Watch his expressive face as he admits some painful truths of his childhood. Chris Avery as Atticus Finch is stalwart, kind, and seeks the justice that needs to be served from a world that hasn’t quite gotten over the Civil War, 70 years prior. Sorkin/Avery’s Finch isn’t an ideologue, per se, although you sense from him a yearning for something more. He has his match in Shanntina Moore as Calpurnia. Moore’s Calpurnia has a dignity that makes me want to know more about this character’s story than anyone else. When Scout’s later monologue talks about law school, who was her exemplar?: her father and his law career or Calpurnia and her need for social justice? Robyn Baun’s performance as Mayella Ewell was captivating; she turned from defensive, to fearful, to ‘don’t tread on me’ daughter of the true south effortlessly. She was the teenage victim of abuse whose hand was forced to lie about what happened in her home. She nails it.

There are wonderful pops of Sorkin dialogue sprinkled throughout, particularly some of Judge Taylor’s waggish remarks expertly delivered by Peter Palmisano. Kevin Kennedy as the southern sheriff Heck Tate and Xavier Harris as the accused Tom Robinson, David Lundy has landowner Link Dees, and John Profeta as Boo Radley delivered solid performances. It was Patrick Moltrane as Mayella’s drunk and angry pappy that makes you remember what a scared and scarred society this small southern town really was.

My one disappointment was the constant movement of set pieces. Last season’s set looked solid and stunning in the style of the Kav’s resident set designer David King. King also is credited with this set design of elements moved about by the actors themselves on a fully lit stage; this was loud and at times frenetic.

O’Donnell said on opening night that ticket sales are very brisk with several shows approaching sell out status. Get online now and book your seats: you won’t be disappointed.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs a little over two hours with a 15 minute intermission until December  8. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets.

First Look: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Kavinoky Theatre

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his young son, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Loraine O’Donnell, Kavinoky Theatre’s executive artistic director has lived with this sentiment the past week, since another production company sent her a ‘cease and desist’ email which pulled the plug on Kav’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a scant two weeks before opening night.

To recap, there is a legal dispute brewing over the rights of the stage adaptation of this beloved American novel. Kavinoky had a signed contract to mount the 1969 Christopher Sergel production. Even though this is not the adaptation currently on Broadway, the production company who owns those rights has threatened legal action against any theatre company – professional and community, around the world – if other productions are mounted during the Broadway run. Read the full story here.

O’Donnell and director Kyle LoConti had to pivot. Quickly.  Pulling a production from the season schedule was not an option.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Donnell sighed.  “We started thinking about what show can we do with this existing, beautiful set?”  Then she had a brainstorm: why not stage the 2013 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian drama “1984.”  It’s a classic drama, it’s in schools’ curricula (this is important as many local schools had already booked weekday ‘Mockingbird’ performances), it would be a regional premier, and its brief stay on Broadway ended in October, 2018. And the content couldn’t be more timely: fake news, propaganda, corrupt government, and Big Brother watching over all. “I’ve had this in my thoughts for years,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell and LoConti made the decision to push the start date back a week to March 15, too, which will allow an extra week of prep without throwing the balance of the season off kilter.

This version of “1984 by George Orwell” was adapted by two Brits, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “who became entranced with the novel’s appendix, which hardly anyone reads,” says O’Donnell. “The play begins when the year 1984 ends and it continues to 2050 in flashes.” Much of the script was developed in rehearsal, from improvisation by the first cast.

LoConti was on-board as director. Almost every member of the ‘Mockingbird’ cast would have roles too, except for the six children (originally cast in two teams of three) and two cast members whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the new run dates.

This sparked another inspiration: instead of tasking the uber-talented Kav set designer David King to start from scratch and build out the stage again, Kav could use its high-tech LED screen panels to full advantage, stretching 20-feet across the entire width of the stage.

Kavinoky’s LED screen is unique in the region, too. The theatre purchased the panels in 2017  (The purchase of the LED curtains are supported by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo with funds from its J. Warren and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund) and O’Donnell said at the time that this innovative technology would be a game changer for the theatre. So far the panels were used as accents or complements to full out sets, particularly in “Mamma Mia!” last season and “Sweeney Todd” this season. This time the curtains will be the focal point. “Brian Milbrand, our video guy, is so excited about this, it’s right up his alley,” said O’Donnell.

The plan is to display the propaganda that is central to the story on the LED curtain, and to depict some of the more graphic elements of the script in creative ways. The six children and two adult actors who couldn’t participate in this production, will be seen in cameo videos this way, as well.  There will be live feed cameras on stage, too, to show the characters’ point of view, and screens in the audience, to give an authentic “big brother is watching” you feel to this immersive experience. O’Donnell said the audience “will have the idea of being constantly watched and monitored.”

O’Donnell is quick to praise the commitment and devotion of the cast and the Kav crew, with particular props to LoConti as the director. “Kyle went from directing a beautiful piece of theatre on her bucket list to something she probably didn’t want to direct. And in a very few days, she’s done a lot of research and preparation. She is amazing.”

O’Donnell is enthusiastic. “This will be a quick three week rehearsal period,” she said, “And it’s spectacular play.”

And that, Atticus Finch, takes courage, and the ability to see it through to the very end.

“1984 by George Orwell” is onstage March 15 to April 7. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.

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.