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OSF: To Kill a Mockingbird & the Iconic White Hero

02.26.11 | 3 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter, dramaturgy, ideas, producers, theatre festivals, theatrical ecosystem, Uncategorized


Tom Robinson (Peter Macon), Atticus Finch (Mark Murphey) and Heck Tate (Peter Frechette) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo: David Cooper.

Ashland’s a snowy, somewhat icy town this weekend for the opening weekend of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. First up last night was the Bill Rauch-directed Measure for Measure, which I thought quite strong — it’s messy, bright, multivocal, layered, set in about 1975 and full of energy and complexity (almost all of those seem like Rauch hallmarks at this point).

Today, the other freelancer for the Eugene Weekly made it down in time for the opening of To Kill a Mockingbird. She’s reviewing it for the paper, but I have a few comments about the play I’ve reserved for y’all.

The book’s a sometimes-beloved classic of U.S. high school classrooms and white folks in general, but it’s not without accusations of racism. One of the most strongly worded analyses came from Stuff White People Do & was reposted at Racialicious; one of the Extremely Calm analyses of the role of Atticus came from Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. The  OSF is aware of all of this — the fest’s publication Illuminations makes that abundantly clear. Backstage West editor Scott Proudfit wrote the notes for this play, and he has an entire section called “A daring book … and a conservative book.”

Dill (Leo Pierotti), Jem (Braden Day) and Scout (Kaya Van Dyke) review the treasures found in the knothole of the Radley tree. Photo: David Cooper.

One point on the “daring book” side says that “readers who perceive Lee’s novel as revolutionary often emphasize how progressive the novel was in the context of the 1960s’ Deep South.” Opposed to that, Proudfit writes: “Most problematcially, the novel consistently depicts white — rather than black — heroism and reflects a kind of Southern paternalism, or faith in white father figures.”

Indeed, that’s just what Gladwell wrote about. But I think this production slightly troubles those still, heroic, Gregory Peck-influenced waters. Perhaps it’s that in 2011, a couple of things seem clear — if unremarked upon openly — at least in this version: Why didn’t Atticus take a rifle with him to sit in front of the jail when he knew a lynch mob would be coming? Why doesn’t he do a better job of protecting himself and his children from the likes of Bob Euell? In addition, women like me, and I’d imagine most men as well, can’t help but find Atticus Finch’s questioning of the raped and beaten (by her father, as Atticus makes abundantly clear) Mayella Euell troubling. This production makes it all the more poignant because Howie Seago (who is Deaf) plays Bob Euell, and Susannah Flood‘s Mayella  interprets for her father. She has to interpret her story, his story, the questions he’s asked, the answers he gives. She’s tied to him with strong bonds, and she’s hurting for it.


Atticus Finch (Mark Murphey) questions Mayella Ewell (Susannah Flood). Photo: David Cooper.

Director Marion McClinton pulls strong performances from most of the cast. The three kids (above) are onstage a lot, and sometimes they’re hard to hear (Southern accents: if you’re thinking about faking them all of the time, you’re going to lose your diction & your lines). The shadow projections — I’ll find out more about those from designer Lynn Jeffries in a few days — often work, and occasionally distract from the production. But on the other hand, I wanted to be reminded that this was a fable, a fable of middle-class white folks caring about the African Americans of their community, a fable that claimed “relief checks” destroyed poor white families, a fable of Harper Lee’s childhood and her fondness for the unreachable, unknowable past.

Those are some first thoughts, anyway. If #2amt folks have staged TKM, I’d be most interested to hear about your experiences/take on this troubling/troubled tale.

And now, off to The Imaginary Invalid!

Suzi Steffen

Suzi Steffen served as the performing and visual arts editor for the Eugene (Oregon) Weekly for nearly five years. She's freelanced for Stage Directions Magazine, the Oregonian and many other publications, and she's now working on an arts journalism site that will cover all 36 counties in Oregon (plus a few counties in neighboring states). She lives in Eugene but loves Portland almost as much as the New York Times does.

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  • Thank you so much for this well-written and thought-provoking piece. I am seeing these plays in the next week, and your article is a very useful preparation.

  • Carolyn Connor

    Your thought provoking comments make it time to revisit this play. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Love how you pull ideas together.

  • Shweissman

    “Most problematcially, the novel consistently depicts white — rather than black — heroism and reflects a kind of Southern paternalism, or faith in white father figures.” This is a lot of the criticism “The Help” is getting – since the movie’s cmoing out soon. It’s fascinating. Tell the story and pat the privileged on the back, or don’t tell it at all?


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