Timely and Timeless

Very Little Theatre tackles Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird

Scott Frazier-Maskiell (left), Hazel van Ummersen, Donella Elizabeth Alston, Cody Masterson and Noa Ablow Measelle in VLT’s To Kill a mockingbird
Scott Frazier-Maskiell (left), Hazel van Ummersen, Donella Elizabeth Alston, Cody Masterson and Noa Ablow Measelle in VLT’s To Kill a mockingbird

For half a century, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird has held an immovable place on the American bookshelf by using humor and grace to tackle one of our nation’s ugliest ongoing realities: racism.

The Very Little Theatre has mounted a winning production of this evergreen tale.

Christopher Sergel’s adaptation takes us to the fictional world of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935. Director Stanley Coleman ably gathers townsfolk to chatter over the latest gossip: Tom Robinson (Darius Bunce), an upstanding husband and father, has been jailed, accused of atrocities against the daughter of the biggest ne’er-do-well in town.

Witnessing the simmering tensions, young Scout Finch (Noa Ablow-Measelle), her brother Jem (Cody Masterson) and friend Dill (Hazel Van Ummersen) have their languid, playful Saturday abruptly suspended.

Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus, represents Tom, imbuing every word he speaks, every gesture, with a self-effacing heroism. Scott Frazier Maskiell brings a powerful, restrained energy to the character, an iconic role if there ever was one.

Larry K. Fried as Heck Tate is also a standout — beleaguered, but with a heart of oak. Donella-Elizabeth Alston, as the children’s terrorizing-but-beloved care provider Calpurnia, offers a maternal glimmer in an otherwise emotionally ascetic landscape. Likewise, Hershell Norwood as the Reverend Sykes provides constant vigilance, shepherding children and onlookers through the painful trial in the second act.

And underscoring the adage that in theater “there are no small parts, only small actors,” Bobbye Sorrels is simply perfect as the cantankerous Mrs. Dubose.

Narrating the production, Rebecca Chamberlain, as a grown-up Scout, floats in and around the action, gently explaining background and intention.

Dialect coach Tricia Rodley has a tall order: To our northern ears, a Southern accent might be a broad descriptor, and any pass at it would suffice. But spend just a bit of time time in the South, and one notes that accents vary not only by state but also by county, even town. In this production, some characters attempt a Southern accent, some don’t. It’s understandable, but it may break the spell.

Sarah Etherton’s set undergoes clever transformations, from quiet neighborhood to courtroom. Sound design by Stanley Coleman, Adrienne West and Molly Clevidence consistently transports. Lighting design by James Aday and Kari Welch evokes the mysteries of lightning bugs and humid days. (The only issue is when the narrator stands downstage right, she is consistently in the dark.) And hats off to the costume team, lead by Nancy Boyett and Paula Tendick, for outfitting the whole of Maycomb in period detail.

To Kill A Mockingbird plays through Jan. 30 at the Very Little Theatre. Tickets available at thevlt.com or by calling the box office at 344-7751.