Take approval and acceptance. Those words sound benign enough, but they can form the rigid foundation for prejudice and intolerance. It's likely that many people in 1930s America, other than hard-core bigots, acted in racist ways because that was the accepted and approved behavior in their communities. You go along to get along.
It takes a lot of gumption to swim against the tide, and that's why Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird has always resonated so deeply. Her hero is Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer during the Depression who would never buckle to the majority will. That Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, is now a largely well-acted production at the Lakeland Theatre.
At first, Atticus isn't much of a hero to his children and their little friend Dill. Young Jean "Scout" Finch and her older brother Jem are a bit mystified by Dad, since he disdains guns and doesn't much like to toss the football around. Plus, the town busybodies whisper that Atticus is a nigger-lover, since he's defending Tom Robinson (sympathetic Roberto Elliott Hooper), a black man accused of beating and raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell.
Anyone who's seen the Gregory Peck flick knows that the kids soon recognize their father's real courage, even though the tragic events that eventually occur provide an ending that is bracingly realistic.
Director Martin Friedman has cast this show exceptionally, with Mark Cipra creating a credible, understated Atticus. Playing the white-trash couple, Douglas Collier is memorably creepy as Bob Ewell, and Caitlin Sandham is both abhorrent and pitiable as Mayella.
Also excellent are Sara Hubacher and Nancy Shimonek Brooks as the town gossips. Among the three kids, Cody Swanson as Jem is strong and easy to understand, while Lizzie Wood's Scout and Lincoln Sandham's Dill have some volume and enunciation problems.
There are a few fuzzy beats and pacing difficulties in the first act, but the tension is stretched thin once the courtroom drama begins. However, it might enhance the seriousness of the judicial proceedings if the side panels on the platforms, painted in homey white trellis patterns for the earlier scenes, were covered up once court is in session.
Considered a predominantly autobiographical piece -- Scout is Harper Lee, and her lifelong friend, author Truman Capote, is Dill -- Mockingbird conveys compelling thoughts about the comfort we feel in our own cozy communities and how jarring it is when the ugliness of prejudice is revealed.
Often the subject of censorship dustups in school libraries, Mockingbird is a discussion-provoking production for families, and Lakeland has accordingly scheduled several family-friendly matinee performances. All the better to keep the Finches alive and well.