‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ premieres at Martinez’s Campbell Theatre

Special to the Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Theater goers on Saturday night were transported back in time to a simpler and yet complex time during a spirited version of Harper Lee’s timeless American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Presented by the Vallejo-based Bay Area Stage Productions (BAS) in the intimate Ward Street confines of the Martinez Campbell Theatre, the troupe will continue its reprise of its 10-time Arty Award play with three additional performances starting this Friday.

Atticus (Paul Cotton) and Tom Robinson (Keith Thompson), during a performance of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Martinez Campbell Theatre. (BAY AREA STAGE PRODUCTIONS / Courtesy)
Atticus (Paul Cotten) and Tom Robinson (Keith Thompson), during a performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Martinez Campbell Theatre. (BAY AREA STAGE PRODUCTIONS / Courtesy)

The play opens in a quiet moment with the story’s most notable character, Arthur “Boo” Radley, played by Dalyn Barnes, placing chewing gum in an old tree outside his house. Such an innocent gesture belies the bigoted language directed at the main characters, Atticus Finch, and his children, Jem and Scout, as the play unfolds.

“The audience should be aware that we will retain the racial terminology of the time during which the story takes place,” said Jeff Lowe, the play’s director. Still he maintained it’s a production entire families will want to see.

Jem and Scout, effectively played by Benicia High School freshman Joseph Siino III and Benicia Middle School 7th grader Katie Siino, are forced to come to grips with understanding the social ugliness of this period during the Great Depression in Maycomb, Alabama. Offstage voices lob criticism about their father for his no-win task of defending a black man, Tom Robinson, played by Keith Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman.

The role of Atticus was played masterfully by Paul Cotten, who captured the country lawyer in the true spirit of Gregory Peck – who portrayed Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning novel – right down to Peck’s physical presence.

As the show continues, Atticus’s character is unwavering in his efforts to try to teach his children to understand and accept the different people of Maycomb and the importance of getting inside their skin.

The important role of narrator in this stage production is not handled by Scout, as Lee used in her  novel, but is performed by Stacey Loew who plays Miss Maudie Atkinson, the Finch family’s ever supportive neighbor. Loew’s character took center stage frequently to eloquently guide the audience through the story’s twist and turns with a comfortable southern drawl that makes you want to sit on the porch swing with her, sip ice cold lemonade, and wile away the hours.

Another cornerstone of this stage production is the dialogue that draws heavily on Lee’s novel. This was especially noteworthy in the all-important trial of Tom Robinson.

Mayella Ewell (Callie Heyer) in a production of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" at Campbell Theatre, Martinez. (BAY AREA STAGE PRODUCTIONS / Courtesy)
Mayella Ewell (Callie Heyer) in a production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Campbell Theatre, Martinez. (BAY AREA STAGE PRODUCTIONS / Courtesy)

Just as Act I closed with the courtroom proceedings unfolding, the stage lights came up with the resumption of the Robinson trial as it approaches its climax. The accuser, Callie Heyer’s Mayella Violet Ewell and her abusive father, Bob Ewell, played by Kenn Stevens, have created a charged environment that sets the stage for Atticus’ ultimately failed attempt by calling client to counter the prosecution, and his own impassioned closing argument to the jury.

The version of the play that BAS is staging is unique as the role of Bob Ewell plays a more demonstrative role than those familiar with the novel and film might expect. 

“No punches are pulled here, particularly in the portrayal of the ugly personification of the community’s racist ethos, Bob Ewell – played by Kenn Stevens with a chilling realism,’’ Lowe said.

The latter scenes in the play see Ewell making a much more direct threat towards Finch. The production culminates in Ewell’s death at the hand of the play’s least suspecting character. Yet, just as the play began, a similar tenderness and hopefulness brings the play to a close.

The cast includes Terry L. Edwards, owner and operator of Pak Mail Center. Also president of Main Street Martinez, Edwards plays the role of the Reverend Sykes. This is his first time treading the boards. Edwards did a fine job and showed he has the pipes too with his rendition of “Amen.’’

He acknowledged the challenge of learning the lines for his part of Sykes after working all day. Still, it did not diminish one bit his appreciation for the experience.

“I am working with a great cast and I feel happy and grateful to be able to do it,” said Edwards. “We have six shows and we have finished the third.  Each time I do it I feel a bit more like Reverend Sykes.”

You can see Edwards and the rest of the ensemble in the remaining three performances this Friday and Saturday, starting at 8 p.m., and in a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.   Tickets (all opening seating) are $18 for adults, and $15 for senior and students. Cash, check or charge are accepted. Walk-ins are welcome too.  For more information, visit www.bayareastage.org or call (707) 649-1053.

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