Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Ahhhh. Macomb, Alabama. Remember the smell of grandma’s peach cobbler cooking in that big old stove? Remember going down to the five-and-dime to get a fishing hook and taking it over to the creek? Remember Old Ma Willoughby sewing up her petticoat before heading to town for the Saturday-night barn dance?

Me neither. My ancestors were too busy fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and settling in urban American hovels to indulge in the pleasures of small-town America. And if they had chosen to set up shop in some quaint Norman Rockwell locale, there’s a good chance that some of the kindhearted, churchgoing folk who lived there would have run them out of town.

A myth persists–in commercials for Country Time Lemonade and Pepperidge Farm cookies, in the songs of John Cougar Mellencamp, in the whimsy of Garrison Keillor–about the basic, pure goodness of our jerkwater hamlets. But there’s always been a dark side to this American dream. Lynch mobs, David Duke, and David Lynch suggest that lurking beneath the sweet smell of hot corn fritters is the stench of evil.

Harper Lee’s brilliant, gripping 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrates the paradox of 1935 Macomb, whose tranquil exterior conceals deep hate and prejudice. Through the eyes of young Scout Finch, Lee tells the tragic story of a noble black man, Tom Robinson, who’s falsely accused of raping a white woman, and his heroic lawyer, Scout’s father Atticus, who risks his life in a futile attempt to convince the town of his client’s innocence.

What has put Lee’s novel on everybody’s freshman-year reading list is not only the wisdom of her humanistic vision, but the skill with which she alternates between Scout’s wistful memories of an idyllic childhood and her harrowing recollections of seemingly peaceful, God-fearing men and women committing immeasurable sins. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story in which Scout learns Macomb is not nearly as lovely as its tidily kept front porches would indicate.

Lee’s Alabama is so magnificently drawn that even ten years after reading the novel, I can still vividly recall each of her characters as if they were my childhood acquaintances: Scout’s precocious and pathetic friend Dill Harris, whose folks give him everything he needs except love; the helpless and ignorant Mayella Ewell, who accuses Robinson of assaulting her to avoid facing the wrath of her alcoholic, redneck father, Bob Ewell; and the Finches’ incomparably shy and mysterious neighbor Boo Radley, who overcomes his fears to become a hero.

To Kill a Mockingbird is such a rich and powerful novel, with so strong a story line, that it just begs to be performed. Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation relies a wee bit too much on superfluous narration, but generally he’s astute enough to realize that Lees dialogue and characters can stand on their own. He has faithfully preserved much of Lee’s original text, making his role more editor than adapter.

Using a cast of 30, the largest in its history, Wisdom Bridge Theatre delivers a wonderfully entertaining and moving production of the play. If it doesn’t soar to the heights of the novel or the movie version starring Gregory Peck, it certainly acquits itself nobly with an abundance of intelligence and a refreshing lack of pretension. Calling on WLS TV newsman Joel Daly to take the pivotal role of Atticus Finch might seem a peculiar and provincial choice for director Jeffrey Ortmann to make, but it’s nearly a stroke of brilliance. What Daly lacks in acting skill, he more than makes up for in avuncular geniality, which gives the production a delightful, homey feet. He doesn’t play Atticus Finch; he is Atticus Finch.

Daly’s soft-spoken, self-effacing style seems to rub off on the rest of the cast, most of whom deliver subtle, understated portrayals that allow Lee’s story to take precedence. You have the feeling you’re eavesdropping on real townspeople rather than observing trained actors. Even the children in the play, whose scenes get a little cutesy-poo at times, are thoroughly believable.

The only flaw in Ortmann’s production is his inability to fully capture the menacing flip side of Macomb’s down-home charm. There are occasional chilling moments when Macomb reveals itself to be a sort of Grover’s Corners from hell, but these are not as effectively rendered as the sweetly nostalgic scenes. The narration by Scout as an older woman looking back on her childhood experiences is accompanied by easy-listening music, which undercuts some of the more sinister aspects of the play.

The production values are uniformly strong. The ubiquitous scenic designer Kevin Rigdon turns in another superb set; his simple, unadorned front porches are inviting and charming. You can almost smell hyacinths and apple blossoms in the air. And Barbara Reeder’s lighting design nimbly orchestrates light and shadow; the way in which she simulates the cool shade of Macomb’s towering trees is especially memorable.

The show is the perfect tonic for these grim winter days. Or the perfect gift for the high school student too proud to purchase Cliffs Notes.