Stage & Dance

Review: AthensWest’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ indicates new era in Lexington theater

Kevin Crowley, as Atticus Finch, chatted with Emily Reed as Scout during a rehearsal for To Kill A Mockingbird.
Kevin Crowley, as Atticus Finch, chatted with Emily Reed as Scout during a rehearsal for To Kill A Mockingbird. Herald-Leader

It’s been a long time coming. And only time will tell if it will last. But if the opening night performance of AthensWest Theatre Co.’s To Kill a Mockingbird is any indication, Lexington is on its way to having something that’s eluded it for years: a professional regional theater that attracts out-of-town talent while growing our own.

Director Jeff Day’s visually evocative production transports audiences to 1935 Maycomb County, Ala., where deeply ingrained racism lurks beneath a Mayberry-esque small town veneer.

The play’s design and performing elements work in tandem to strike a pleasant balance between faithfully recreating familiar characters and locales and uniquely interpreting those classic characters and storylines with fresh layers of insight and nuance.

The treelined neighborhood of Kate Goodwin and Tom Willis’s set design features screen doors situated close together, emphasizing just how much everyone in Maycomb is aware of everybody else’s business. This scenic detail, along with strong supporting performances by Sherman Fracher, Robyn Maitlind, and Sheila Miller as colorful neighbors Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie, and Miss DuBose respectively, underscores the important truth that the story is as much the community’s story as Atticus Finch’s or Scout’s.

The quality of acting in the entire ensemble is a breath of fresh air and further serves to emphasize the community ties that bind them, from the youngsters playing Atticus Finch’s children Scout (Annalise Finch), Jem (Galen Arnett) and runaway friend Dill (Nate Krohmer) to adult supporting actors like John Gavigan as the very Southern but fair Judge Taylor, Stuart Fail as Sheriff Heck Tate, Tiffany Baker as Calpurnia, Marshall Fields as Reverend Sykes and Shayne Brakefield’s double duty as prosecuting attorney Mr. Gilmer as well as Boo Radley.

Patrick Mitchell’s largely silent presence as the falsely accused Tom Robinson is a potent contrast to his dramatically stirring testimony on the witness stand, where Chris Rose and Gabrielle Miller also deliver rousing courtroom performances as Robinson’s bigoted false accusers Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella.

As to the two Equity actors in the show, Sherman Fracher’s spirited narration as Miss Maudie anchors the show’s narrative elements while Kevin Crowley’s portrayal of Atticus beckons us to take a closer, more nuanced look at his iconic character.

Crowley, who appears in the Cate Blanchett film Carol, which was released the same night as the play opened (though not in Lexington), delivers a powerfully engrossing, unforgettable performance as Atticus. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 film classic may be tattooed into our collective consciousness when we imagine Atticus, but Crowley has created his own version of Atticus that I found even more compelling for its sense of grace. There’s a quietness, a softness, a fallibility and humility to his Atticus that reminds you that he is a parent who struggles like all parents, a friend and neighbor who struggles to love his fellow friends and neighbors despite what Miss Stephanie might call a town-wide “streak” of ugliness and hate. He deftly portrays the quiet strength of an imperfect but principled man who knows he’s going to lose but is determined to do so with integrity. I saw his Atticus as less the lone voice of a justice crusader than a man attempting to grapple with his place in a flawed community that he tries to make better as best he can.

It’s a struggle we can all recognize as we try to make sense of worlds events around us. While may be a long way from 1935 Alabama, but we still have a long way to go.

AthensWest has a long way to go, too, between the opening performance of its inaugural full season to becoming an established pillar of the arts community, but To Kill a Mockingbird is an assured, measured first step in that direction. And the community is clearly interested as Friday night, the show played to a full house, even though the Cats were playing down the street.

Theater Review

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

What: AthensWest Theatre Co. production of the stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 21, 27, 28 and Dec. 3-5. 2 p.m. Nov. 22, 29, Dec. 6.

Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.

Tickets: $25 general public, $20 senior adults, military and students.

Online: Athenswest.org.

Phone: 859-425-2550.

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