Joe Discher, associate artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, has directed a variety of classics in his 21 years with the company. His credits range from Brecht to the Bard to musicals and comedies on the outdoor stage.
In recent years, though, the Madison resident and Drew University-Delbarton School graduate has carved out a niche for staging classics pulled from the shelves of timeless American literature, including “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Now, he’s completed a hat trick of sorts with a triumphant production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Although it is staged annually at the courthouse of novel author Harper Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Ala., Christopher Sergel’s reverent stage adaptation is seen rarely elsewhere. One reason might be that it makes great demands of three child actors. But Discher, who was taught and now teaches theater here, not only took on that challenge, but turned it into one of this production’s greatest strengths.
Most people have read Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning testament to courage, compassion and youthful innocence, seen the celebrated movie adaptation, or both. Those who know it best from the movie will notice several changes in the story, while lovers of the novel will be pleased to see that Sergel’s adaptation restores many of the characters and plotlines that Hollywood removed.
“This is a show that needs to be seen,” said Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte in her remarks to Saturday’s opening-night audience. No argument here, although parents with younger children need to remember that Lee’s story, while told from the perspective of an elementary-aged child, includes some offensive language and adult themes.
The novel, of course, is told from the perspective of Scout (Emmanuelle Nadeau, a 7th-grader from Westfield), the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a proud and principled attorney practicing in Maycomb, Ala., in 1935. He’s a man who not only is willing to accept turnip greens as payment for defending a poor farmer, but efforts to convince the farmer he’s happy with the compensation.
But even that grateful neighbor farmer confronts him as part of a lynch mob ready to hang his latest client: Tom Robinson (Ray Fisher), a black man accused of raping a white teenage girl.
For the stage, Sergel adds a helpful second perspective — Scout as an adult — who flitters in and out as a narrator. Nisi Sturges, who has built quite a strong body of work here in recent years, accomplishes this task with grace and a thick-as-molasses Southern accent. (Fans of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” can catch occasional glimpses of Sturges as the wife of the corrupt sheriff and brother of Nucky Thompson.)
Like the novel, the first act focuses on Scout, her older brother, Jem (Frankie Seratch) and a friend, Dill (Ethan Haberfield) and their obsession with Boo Radley (Jake Berger), a reclusive neighbor whose sightings in the neighborhood are mostly rumor and tall tales. While dealing with the professional and social complexities of his case, which has the whole town abuzz, Atticus counsels the children about jumping to conclusions about Boo and the neighbors who are turning against them.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, he preaches, but that true justice “is the only thing that does not go by majority rule.” In a true court of law, “all men are created equal is not an ideal, but a living, breathing reality.”
The second act focuses on the trial and it’s hardly a spoiler to acknowledge that the jury in Maycomb does not measure up to the naïve idealism of Atticus. But Scout learns through her father’s calm resolve that true courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin, anyway.”
While Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance presented Atticus as more of a rock-solid pillar, Harris, with a weathered face to match his wrinkly suit, is more like an old oak tree, scarred by time but still standing strong. He also has a way of commanding the stage without dominating it, which allows many other smaller, but equally admirable performances, to shine through.
James Michael Reilly, one of the company’s longest-standing oak trees, abandons his usual comic persona to play Heck Tate, the unusually sympathetic sheriff who plays a key role in the conclusion. Marjorie Johnson also stands proud as Calpurnia, who dispenses tough love as the Finch family housekeeper and surrogate mother. Conan McCarty is chilling as vicious father of the alleged rape victim, Mayella, played by Alexis Hyatt, who displays all the signs of an abuse victim who cannot admit who really abused her.
But the children, particularly in the first act, are a revelation, handling page after page of dialogue and stage action to near perfection. All of them go beyond hitting their marks, though, to build real characters, display real emotions and have the requisite charm to provide comic relief when it’s most needed.
Put them all on the honor roll, but credit their teacher, Discher, who never fails to get the best out of every actor he casts.
Monte, too, is backing up her belief that this is a story that needs to be seen. In addition to scheduling nine student-matinee performances (call the theater for details), the company has booked Oscar-nominated Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film, to discuss the film and take questions from the audience on Nov. 7 and 8.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs through No. 20 F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. at Drew University, Madison. Tickets are $32 to $55. For tickets and show times, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.