It has been over a half century since Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was published. Subsequently the 1962 motion picture was honored wIth Academy Award honors for its screenplay by Horton Foote and a Best Actor nod to Gregory Peck for his performance as Atticus Finch. The novel was adapted for the stage by Christopher Setgel, but the unmistakable voice of the rural south and its compassionate thrust for justice and human dignity is that of Harper Lee. The dramatization is currently on the Garden State stage in a warming production by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. As staged by Joseph Discher it is a singularly stunning achievement.
Lee's characters in a small Depression-era Alabama town have been brought to life with appealing insight and clarity. The heart, spirit and focus of the coming-of-age narrative is seen through the eyes of Scout Finch, acted with scrappy and refreshing insight by young Emmanuelle Nadeau. The lass is a curious and passionate tomboy. Nadeau invests the youth with a sense of fierce independence and an eager quest for knowledge.
Nisi Sturgis serves as the grown-up Scout, Jean Louise Finch, narrating the events in flashback sequences. Srurgis has insightfully mastered the soft, sweet Southern drawl required and pieces the events together with appealing clarity, providing the drama its pace and flavorful focus. Nasdeau's Scout is given keen support by young Frankie Scratch as her brother and the appealing Ethan Haberfield as an inquisitive playmate. An ornery old neighbor lady, Miss Dubose, is given crusty flavor and homespun grit by Jean Walker, who keeps a close watch over her precious garden of camellias.
The principal role of lawyer Atticus Finch is acted by Brent Harris with a bold, paternal thrust. He teaches the youngsters the errors of bigotry and prejudice, giving the play its center strength and moral truth. There is persuasive support in the final courtroom scenes vividly rendered by Ray Fisher as a partially disabled black youth falsely accused of molesting a seductive white gal. The latter is played by Alexis Hyatt with a hysterically mean-spirited thrust. Conan McCarty is effectively scruffy as the wench's father.
The functional front porch set by Anita Tripathi Easterling crowds some of the movement, yet serves the action appropriately enough. The play runs on the Drew University campus through Nov. 20.
On Nov. 7 and 8, An Evening of Conversation with Mary Badham will focus on the novel, its message and its amazing durability. Badham was nominated for an Oscar in the classic 1962 film for her performance as Scout.