Manitoba Theatre Centre 2000
Vue Weekly, Edmonton, Alberta
“The hero and the Tara”
The Edmonton Sun
John Wright’s hate-filled racist, Bob Ewell, is so scabrous you can practically see critters crawling on him. Tara Hughes makes a compelling white-trash woman/child so beaten down she seems to be trying to disappear even as you watch her. Seun Olagunju’s quiet dignity as Tom, the man charged with the crime, is moving.
Manitoba Theatre Centre’s season premiere To Kill a Mockingbird is a cleverly-staged, well-produced and finely-acted play whose only flaw (like that of the novel upon which the play is based) is that for a play about racism, it’s very, very White.
Set in 1935, the novel is told from the perspective of Scout, a young white girl who witnesses first-hand the effects of racism in her small Southern town when her lawyer father Atticus takes up the defence of a Black man falsely accused of rape. In the play version, Scout is split into two characters, an adult narrator (played lovingly by Gina Wilkinson) and a child (impressive young actor Arianna Marsden). Director Dennis Garnhum does well, capturing Scout’s world of childhood innocence on the verge of deeper understanding. Her adoration of her father, squabbles with her brother, and interactions with her best friend are all very real, as is her growing sorrow and anger at the bigotry of her town. Ric Reid plays Atticus with a perfect balance of gentleness and outrage – his peculiarly Southern tolerance and deeply human understanding of difference is a joy to watch onstage. His conviction that “simply because we were licked 100 years before we started doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try” is, frankly, inspirational.
Other cast members are equally impressive. Tara Hughes, as the victimized Mayella Ewell, is so emotionally bare she’s painful to watch, and John Wright is chilling as her brutal father. Patsey Ulmer provides a glint of humour as the all-powerful housekeeper Calpurnia. Aside from Calpurnia (who is essentially a stock character), the Black characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are mostly voiceless – and therein lies a problem. We don’t need yet another narrative in which heroic white characters (well-intentioned though they may be) save silent Black characters to assuage some kind of collective guilt. It’s a cop-out, and far too simplistic a look at race relations for contemporary audiences. We all know that racism is bad; we need now to take a deeper look at the causes of its perpetuation. This play fails on that count.
Still there is much that is good here. Garnhum paces the play well, and particularly shines in the second half – a highly effective courtroom scene that makes good use of the few rows of audience members seated onstage. And if taken simply as a family drama about the relationship between a pair of children and their father, the play is a smashing success.