Southern Gothic

‘To Kill A?Mockingbird’ Opens Friday

The courtroom scene from “to Kill A Mockingbird.” The play will be performed at the Little Theatre, 18 E. Second St., Jamestown, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and again March 15, 16 and 17. Tickets are available at the Little Theatre Box Office or by calling 483-1095. Photo by Jordin Lynn

There’s always a danger in presenting a well-known work like “To Kill a Mockingbird” but the cast and crew of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre production have accepted the challenge willingly.

Director Richard Olson-Walter commented about both this play, and about his directing style. Regarding “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Olson-Walter finds it as relevant now as when it was written. “At a time…where difference is not tolerated, and where so many people cling to the binary options of for and against, Republican or Democrat, black or white…the message of this play is one of empathy, of standing in another person’s shoes…It reminds us that we are all human, we are all equal,” he said.

Olson-Walter has high praise for his entire cast members in the way that they’ve developed their roles and says that the majority of the cast members auditioned because of their belief in the message of the play. “They have been a delight to work with. They have a hunger for their roles and are showing me their talents. Many auditioned for this production because of their belief in the importance of the message of this piece,” the director said.

Matt Smith (Atticus) appeared in another production of the play, in the same role he is playing now. His view of Atticus is that he is a man ahead of his time. “Atticus truly believes that all men are created equal, which was not a popular view in Alabama in 1935. He also believes in empathy, in walking in another person’s shoes. That’s what he tries to teach his children.”

R.D. Lee, who plays Tom Robinson, has also been in many Jamestown theatre productions. His take on the drama is that the trial is not so much about guilt or innocence as it is about the hierarchy of the town. While the long deliberation of the jury indicates that at least some of the jurors may have believed him innocent, in the end, they cannot fight the pattern of their town’s society.

From left, Jem, Jonah Foley; Scout, McKenna Schneider; and Dill, Cyrus Jones rehearse a scene in “To Kill A Mockingbird. Photo by Jordin Lynn

Kipp Reynolds is a stand-up comedian, but he leaves that behind him when he steps into the role of Bob Ewell, a man with “no redeeming qualities.” Says Reynolds, “if the audience boos me during the curtain call, I’ll have done my job.” Still, Reynolds, like his cast mate R.D. Lee, sees beyond the surface. “Bob Ewell is an alcoholic from a family of alcoholics who never did a day’s work. It’s all he knows. He wants to feel superior to somebody.”

Skip Anderson has been active in community theatre since the 70s and not only loves “To Kill a Mockingbird, his all-time favorite drama, but he loves his role as Sheriff Heck Tate. “It’s not a large part,” he says, “but so many of the lines are crucial to the action, to advancing the story. The role is small, but very, very important.”

Olson-Walter especially praised the three young actors who are in the roles of Scout, Jem, and Dill.

“I really hit the jackpot…they have been a delight for all of us to work with,” he said. “I treat them as I would any actor. When they need direction, I may be more prone to asking questions, and allowing them to find the answer. This reinforces their confidence in what they are doing, because they are telling me, not the other way around. There are some basics that need to be taught but on the whole, they have risen to every challenge and I am proud of what they bring to the play.”

For directing, Olson-Walter believes that the key is to understand the intentions of the writer and to communicate that on stage, although there are definite differences, depending on the play. Olson-Walter notes that The 39 Steps, which he directed last year for Little Theatre, had over 100 lighting and sound cures. With “To Kill a Mockingbird,” his focus is to help the actors develop believable characters.

“I am not a fan of the disciplinarian approach to directing,” the director said. “Rather, I will ask the actors questions or offer guidance, and we come to a consensus on the character.”

Olson-Walter also always has an assistant director as a second pair of eyes to spot things in rehearsal that he may miss, and also to ensure that all the actors are receiving support and attention. His assistant directors have a voice in the process and take the lead occasionally. With this play, assistant director Adam Hughes has also run some of the rehearsals when Olson-Walter was dealing with other production business.

While set in the south, not everyone has a southern accent, which benefits everyone. For Olson-Walter, the choice was clear. “Some are using an accent, but only where I feel it is effective…This is a dialogue driven play. It is imperative that our audience can understand what is being said.”

Besides directing the actors, the director must also think about the technical side of the production. At Little Theatre, that means interacting with technical director Jason Dorman. With all the plays that Olson-Walter directs, he tells Dorman what he’s looking for, and then Dorman gets back to him with sketched out ideas.

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“Jason is a creative guy, so I give him license to create a set that allows him to exploit those talents. He also has a strong team in Norm Merrill and Wayne Hutton,” the director said.

Olson-Walter appoints lighting and sound techs as well as a stage manager and since he’s worked with them before, that made things easier with this production.

It’s not always easy to build a set on a budget, but Little Theatre’s technical director, Dorman knows how to recycle. In this production, much of it was part of the set of Mamma Mia from last season. The set shows the exterior of several homes Maycomb, Alabama, complete with a wonderful paper mache tree. When it’s time for the courtroom scene, the balconies of those houses become the gallery of the courtroom. Chairs and a judge’s bench complete the scene, and with effective lighting, the houses fade into the background, while the brightly lit courtroom captures the attention.

Dorman has nothing but praise for the entire back stage crew, and is quick to share creative credit with Norm Merrill. “I couldn’t do it without him. His guidance and knowledge are invaluable. I run everything by him.”

Asked if he had any final thoughts about the production, Olson-Walter said that he wants the audiences of To Kill a Mockingbird to be moved emotionally. “Theatre has the ability to make you feel uncomfortable, upset, frustrated. That is its power. I want our audiences to leave with the words of Atticus Finch echoing in their ears…”

The play will be presented Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 p.m., March 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m.; March 17 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, call 483-1095 or visit www.lucilleballlittletheatre.org.

The cast, in order of appearance, is Scout, McKenna Schneider; Jem, Jonah Foley; Dill, Cyrus Jones; Atticus Finch, Matt Smith; Calpurnia, Jamie King-Prunty; Miss Maudie, Mary Lee Talbot; Miss Stephanie, Roxanne Spengler; Mrs. Dubose, Patti Culliton; Judge Taylor, Earl Rothfus; Heck Tate, Skip Anderson; Reverend Sykes, Daman Holland; Tom Robinson, R.D. Lee; Mayella Ewell, Briana Matson; Bob Ewell, Kipp Reynolds; Walter Cunningham, Wayne Hutton; Mr. Gilmer, Zander Chase; Boo Radley, Adam Hughes; Clerk and various, John Pickett; children of Maycomb, Emma Foley, Zoey Foley, Zoey Shimmel, Madison Hill.

The backstage crew is led by technical director Jason Dorman; stage manager Cathy Smith; set design, Dorman, Richard Olson-Walter; lights, Dorman; sound, Brittany Grover; set construction, Norm Merrill, Jason Dorman, Wayne Hutton; costumes, Melissa Vullo; painter, Jan Merrill, backstage crew, Melinda Foley, Amy Woodfield.