In 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th Century.
The protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird - memorably portrayed in a beloved 1962 film adaptation starring the late Gregory Peck, who won on Oscar for the role - embodies the spirit of the Southern liberals who, at great personal cost and little personal credit, helped spearhead the Civil Rights movement in the American South.
Portrayed in this production by none other than Connect Savannah Arts & Entertainment Editor Bill DeYoung, Finch is a widowed attorney in a Depression-era Alabama town given the difficult task of defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Soon, Finch's nemesis emerges in the form of the abusive Bob Ewell.
The whole ordeal, including the final confrontation with the dastardly Ewell, represents not only the heroism of Finch but the loss of innocence of his children Scout and Jem.
Originally a novel by Harper Lee, it was later adapted for the stage, and the City of Savannah's Cultural Arts Theatre performs the play beginning this weekend at the S.P.A.C.E. Black Box Theatre on Henry Street.
Other members of the cast include Bailey Keith as Scout, Matthew Sparks as Jem, Charlie Ippolito as Dill Harris, Walter Magnuson as Boo Radley, and Gabriel Ricard as Bob Ewell.
We talked with the director of the production, Elizabeth "Ellie" Pyle, theatre arts coordinator with the city's Department of Cultural Affairs.
Why this show, and why now?
Ellie Pyle: When we were coming up with our season, we were looking for a fall show that did a few things. First, we wanted a show that would involve a wide range of actors, including some children. We wanted to do a show that would fit into the curriculum of the schools so we could do some school shows - we will be having two. And we wanted to do a show that had some social significance.
The script is very frank in its language regarding race relations. How have you approached that controversial material?
Ellie Pyle: We sat down very early in the rehearsal process to talk about that. I invited some guests in who'd worked on previous productions of the show. And we had a big discussion about the show, about the story, about content that made people uncomfortable. About why that content makes people uncomfortable and why that discomfort makes the point the play is trying to make. So the script does a really good job of justifying its content in that these things are here to make you uncomfortable, because they're ugly truths that need to be faced.
I'm not sure you should even attempt the play if you're not willing to go all the way with it.
Ellie Pyle: I agree entirely. And I think the script does a wonderful job of working that point into the story. Within the first couple of scenes we have Scout and Atticus discussing how there are words that people use that they shouldn't. At the end of Act 1 there's a wonderful speech by the judge after Bob Ewell says something incredibly inflammatory, and the judge asks to clear the courtroom of women and children. And he says you have to decide what's appropriate for you and your family, and you have to decide if you want to address these issues. And I'll give you a chance right now to make that decision, so we'll take a ten-minute intermission.
We're so used to seeing courtroom scenes now, such as the ones throughout Mockingbird. How do you keep that fresh and not cliched?
Ellie Pyle: The way the script is set up, it specifically requests that the audience serve as the jury. We've taken that a step farther in terms of our staging. The way the stage is set up there's a section of the audience that is the jury, and there's a section that is where other spectators in the courtoorm would be. The whole play is not in the round, but the blocking was almost like blocking a show in the round, because the audience is totally incorporated into what's going on. At any given moment you might be looking at somebody's back, but you will see what's going on with other people. There are cast members who are going to be sitting in front of or alongside audience members. There's a point where the sheriff pulls his chair over and sits down right next to audience members.
I hear you have some dude named Bill DeYoung playing the lead adult role. That name rings a bell.
Ellie Pyle: That's true, and he's doing a wonderful job. We're so pleased to have him here. He brings an incredible sense of professionalism that is just wonderful. It's not unusual for me to come to rehearsal and for Bill to be the first one to show up and for him to be grabbing actors saying, hey let's run our scene. It's a very intimidating role to take on and I know he feels a little of that, but he's really making it his own.
There are child actors in this as well, including a 7-year-old. How in the world do you direct a 7-year-old in a cast of adults?
Ellie Pyle: There are certainly challenges involved in that. And I have an advantage in that while I started doing theater slightly older than that, I have a younger brother who started doing theater at exactly that age. Charlie (Ippolito) is brilliant, and that helps.
It seems like everyone already knows this show, but maybe I'm being optimistic about people's knowledge of American theatre standards.
Ellie Pyle: There are people who don't know the story. There are people who've read the story in high school and never revisited it. So there are people for whom the play will essentially be a first time experience.
There are many other people who love this story so very, very much, and it holds such an important place in their heart. They're going to come, and we're either going to live up to it or get it wrong!
Cultural Arts Theatre performs To Kill A Mockingbird
When & Where: Nov. 6, 7, 13, 14, at 8 p.m. and Nov. 8 and 15 at 3:00 p.m. in the Black Box at S.P.A.C.E., 9 W. Henry St.
Cost: $10, $7 seniors and students with ID