Why To Kill a Mockingbird Is a Triumph for Flagler, And Especially for FPC’s Drama Club
Pierre Tristam | February 26, 2011
In case you haven’t made plans for tonight yet, or for tomorrow afternoon and evening, don’t, unless they include going to the Flagler Auditorium to see the student production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In that case, great: you won’t regret it. If you have made plans, change them. Whatever you’re doing can be rescheduled. But you’re not likely to see another Mockingbird like this for several years. There’s nothing better in town right now, or more rewarding, on any stage or screen. And for all the talk and air-quoted controversy that’s hounded this production like so many raving Bob Ewells, it’s time to footnote it all (not, mind you, to forget it) and focus on the performers.
These students from Ed Koczergo’s Drama Club at Flagler Palm Coast High School carried this show–and themselves–impressively, upstaging some of the adults who tried to stop them, and proving what most of us knew all along: the play was in fine hands from the start. These students could handle it. Their audiences would handle it, because good theater depends on the quality of a performance, not the prejudices of an audience.
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From the moment the nonexistent curtain rose on the spare set–and not a minute into the play, from the moment that word was uttered, to be uttered many times throughout–it was clear who was in charge. I heard a friend at the play (Caren Umbarger, the artistic director of the Flagler Youth Orchestra) say Karsyn Bembry’s Scout carried the show. It’s true. Bembry’s performance was her own (not the Scout of the 1962 movie), energetic and tomboyish and affecting at the same time, and convincing to the point that “texting” might have been as foreign a notion to her as rape. (Early in the story Scout is confronted with the idea of black Tom Robinson’s alleged rape of a white woman, and she must ask her father what the word means).
The Ewells, too, have you more than convinced: Tera Cieri’s Mayella Ewell has the difficult task of looking at once terrified and dishonest as her testimony, a whirl of self-protective lies, incriminates Robinson by turning her advances on him into an accusation of rape. Mayella wears a white pleated dress that radiates both as she trembles beneath it throughout. The set cleverly has the witness stand jutting beyond the middle of the stage into the first row of the audience–essentially, the jury–making each actor’s emotions that much more immediate. The Ewells took full advantage. (Another clever set piece: when the children witness the trial from the balcony, the actors are in fact in the balcony section of the auditorium, with a video camera trained on them and their image reflected on a back screen on stage.)
It’s difficult to say that Shawn-Michael Manniel’s Bob Ewell was a treat. He’s the lout, the bigot, the drunk, the cussing, spitting, abusive bully who compares his daughter to swine and speaks in scum. But he was–a treat, that is. Manniel’s Ewell does all that; he wouldn’t be Ewell if he didn’t. But you can see the John Belushi in Manniel, too. He approaches the stage like a diver prepares for a cannonball, and keeps diving. The splashing is intentional.
Through it all is the rail-like Eddie Green, whose Atticus Finch, the lawyer called on to defend Tom Robinson, does a different sort of heavy lifting through the show. His white suit is designed to project that incandescence of integrity. Wear shades. Harper Lee (author of the original Mockingbird) is said to have modeled Atticus Finch on her farther, a lawyer who lost a case similar to Finch’s, and never practiced law again. Forget Gregory Peck’s Finch. In the book Finch is already an otherworldly hero that compares to few other characters like him in literature. Dostoevsky’s “Idiot” comes to mind: Prince Myshkin, the “idiot” of the title, was modeled after Christ, the perfect character, unfailing in honesty and propriety to an often unbearable point, for those around him. Dostoevsky took on the character as a challenge, knowing that creating perfection is impossible, even for Christ. Imagine what it’s like to have to play that character. Peck almost pulled it off. So does Green.
But perfection is an unfair imposition on any actor, and one of the few weaknesses of Lee’s novel is this absence of any nuance whatsoever in her leading characters, Atticus Finch especially: there is no wiggle room. You’re either utterly decent or utterly not, which is what makes the children’s roles simpler to manage: unlike Finch, at least they’re allowed to figure things out. So the glow around Green’s Finch is as much halo as manacles. Blame Lee, not Green for that. Peck’s Finch is no different.
As John Sbordone, until this month the director of almost three dozen plays at the Flagler Playhouse, put it in an email to Koczergo after the show, “I was most impressed with the pace that Eddie maintained throughout, leaving no doubt who was in control of the show. You did a remarkable job with him and with the prosecutor and judge who also spoke with distinction and authority [Christopher Skraba]. They kept me involved, the story was clear and strong and I was really quite taken with Leanna, your narrator.” (Leanna Gardella.)
It’s a large cast–25 actors–and a full-hearted story, abridged enough as a play that nevertheless conveys the essence of Lee’s theme: coming of age, injustice, racism, and what one audience member–Manniel’s mother, actually–pointed out after the show: it’s not enough to stand for what’s right if you can’t stand up to those who don’t.
The play was followed by a panel discussion featuring Koczergo, FPC Assisttant Principal Kevin McCarthy, the writer Jack Cowarding (a long-time correspondent of Lee’s), and Delphine Williamson, an English teacher at FPC who’s been teaching Mockingbird to 9th graders for years. The panel was moderated by Colleen Conklin and introduced, by video, by Jim Guines, the former school board member and veteran of the civil rights era (he taped his words earlier because he’s in Paris this week: he’s earned it). The audience dwindled a little bit when the panel kicked off. (And, incidentally, the audience was nothing to be proud of: 162 people was not enough for opening night. After all the fury and the noise, where’s the support?)The panel was devised as a way to “involve the community,” educate audiences and diffuse whatever issues might have arisen from the play’s use of nigger and the word’s derivative themes (the word was at the origin of the cancellation of the play in November, before it was reinstated). But it became very quickly evident that, despite its good will and grace, the panel was unnecessary. The students made it redundant. Their play was the panel. As McCarthy said along the way, the students had it right all along. They should have been trusted all along.
And Conklin just as quickly sensed that the strength of the moment with the panel after the play was not the panel itself, but the involvement of the student performers and members of the audience, a converted choir though that audience was. The discussion touched on the play’s (and the book’s) more literary themes as much as it did matters of race and sensibilities. At one point, Tom Robinson’s Patrick Farris, who is black, perhaps surprised the audience when he blamed, at least to some extent, black students who cavalierly call each other niggers, even if out of affection. If ending the word’s use is anyone’s goal, Farris said, it should start with blacks not using it on themselves, and making it easier for others to follow suit.
Let’s keep in mind that adolescents’ memories aren’t long and remember the nature of the word’s history: blacks didn’t start it. They’re merely trying to disarm it.
Conklin at one point noted the importance of empathy. Like Prince Myshkin, like Christ, Atticus doesn’t seek confrontation. He doesn’t o0ffer the other cheek, but he seeks to absorb others’ hurt and thereby maybe diffuse it. It doesn’t work quite so well when he assumes that by letting Bob Ewell spit on him, Ewell won’t attack anyone else. Ewell ends up attempting to murder Atticus’s children. That doesn’t deter Atticus’s sense of empathy.
“When discussing empathy,” Conklin said later, “I made the statement to walk away like Atticus. I saw the faces of some students look puzzled. What I should have said in a more clear and deliberate way was that Atticus did walk away. He walked away from physical violence when spit on, slandered and threatened. Instead he used his mind and his intellect to fight back. Just as the students should do – fight intolerance and ignorance with their minds and never their fists. This is in relation to any kind of social and racial prejudice, that being race, gender, or those with special needs. Don’t play a part in social exclusion and prejudice of any kind.”
And don’t miss this play.