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Nov 10, 2014 3:58 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'To Kill A Mockingbird': Still A Story Worth Telling

Nov 10, 2014 3:58 PM

To rivet the attention of an audience from eight to 80—as a quick scan of Bay Street Theater revealed the other night—takes high drama and tall talent, and both are in top form in Sag Harbor through Saturday, November 29, in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The story, of course, is Harper Lee’s elemental opus of alleged rape and entrenched racism in the South during the 1930s. Her iconic and only novel is familiar to every schoolchild past age 13, and that, indeed, is why the drama was chosen for Bay Street’s Literature Live! program that brings American classics to life on stage for teenagers. Adapted by a Brit, Christopher Sergel, and first staged in America in the 1990s, he wrote the drama for adolescents but—and, in this case, a big but—it turned out to be suitable for all ages.

The story is pretty basic and Southern iconic: a poor black man, Tom Robinson, befriends an equally poor young white woman, Mayella Ewell, in small-town Alabama by doing occasional odd jobs for her. Her drunken, loutish father falsely accuses Tom of rape. In steps a white knight of a lawyer, Atticus Finch, to defend Tom both in court and against the mob that would just as soon string him up as have a trial.

The story is told through the prescient eyes of Atticus’s 6-year-old daughter, Scout, who barely understands what is going on. Director Joe Minutillo here uses the grown-up Scout, portrayed by Chloë Dirksen, to set up the story in monologue, a variation from the original play, which has an older neighbor in that role. Thanks to the statuesque Ms. Dirksen, the shift here works just fine.

The real wonder of the troupe is the very young Jemma Kosanke, who sprints like a headstrong pony through the role of Scout. She is in nearly every scene and on stage for much of the 90-minute production. Even at age 9, Jemma is not a newcomer to the stage—having debuted at the Dallas Theater Center in her home state of Texas—and as Scout she’s a wonder to watch. For Bay Street to have her is pure gold.

But praising her does not diminish the overall production. Because Literature Live!, with free admission to students, sounded like a construction for schoolchildren, expectations were thusly bound. Instead, those expectations were dashed and met with an engrossing evening of swell theater on every level—acting, stage, sound, lighting, costumes. It was all good.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was made into a famous movie starring Gregory Peck as the indomitable Atticus Finch, for which he won an Oscar, and if you are familiar with the film, it can be hard to get that interpretation of the role out of your mind. Scott Eck managed it without blinking.

A 40-year veteran of stage, with film and television credits longer than there is room for here, Mr. Eck is Atticus—widowed father, country lawyer and moral mensch as soon as he came on stage. Joe Pallister’s portrayal of the play’s villain, Bob Ewell, is spot-on defiant and intense as the cracker who falsely accuses Tom of raping his daughter and beating her up on the way out. Jessica Mortellaro is convincing as the frightened and downtrodden Mayella Ewell, a young woman looking for a little love, who instead creates a situation that spirals out of control. Audiences familiar with the Literature Live! program will remember her as Anne Frank in the title role last year at Bay Street.

The excellent cast is filled out by Chauncy Thomas as Tom Robinson; Cooki Winborn as the housekeeper, Calpurnia; Hudson Troy as Jem, Scout’s brother; and Thomas Schiavoni as Dill, her friend, who is otherwise a fifth-grader at Sag Harbor Elementary School. Others include Carolyn Popp, Rob DiSario, William Sturek and Al Bundonis.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” may seem as familiar as ham and cheese on rye to most Americans, but the story is worth revisiting for all of us. Its unvarnished look at the horrible cost of racism is a fresh reminder that what happened “then” is not so far past today. White America may think that racism is a thing of the past, but black America knows that ain’t so.

With the ticket price of only $25 for non-students and free for all students with a valid ID, there’s no good reason to miss this extraordinary production in Sag Harbor. Weekday performances are designed for school groups, and more than 3,000 students from the area will see the show. We are fortunate to have it so near and accessible for all.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” will stage through Saturday, November 29, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Public performances will stage on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., with matinée performances on Saturdays, November 15, 22 and 29, at 2 p.m. Group and weekday show times vary, based on availability. For more information, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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