Energetic direction refreshes 'Mockingbird'

Utah Shakespeare Festival's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is such a riveting courtroom drama that I had forgotten I already knew, from previous viewings, how it ended.

Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name may sound old-hat, but the writing isn't, and neither is Edward Morgan's energetic direction. You feel as if the show were written yesterday.

In 1930s Maycomb, Ala., a young black man is put on trial for raping a 19-year-old white woman. An idealistic local attorney uncovers a lot of racism as he tries to get at the truth of what happened that hot summer night.

Morgan respects the story's intimate moments. When two of the attorney's respectful children defy their father's order to stay home because they want to physically protect him, you may find yourself cheering the guts of their disobedience. When the preteen son, who thinks of his 50-something dad as an old fart, suddenly looks up to him, you relish his pride as you might your own child's in you. And when the climatic verdict is read, Morgan expertly builds the suspense so that you're likely to gasp no matter how you thought things were going to turn out.

Martin Kildare comes across as a stern, sometimes pig-headed, kind, articulate man of conscience as attorney Atticus Finch. He finds a surprising amount of vocal variety in a part that could easily be made monotonous. Nakeisha Daniel offers a nifty balance of tyranny and sweet concern as Finch's cook. And many performers in relatively minor roles make a major impression: the strongly-focused Colby Lewis as the accused rapist; the unassuming Dan Kremer as a simple, poor farmer; the authoritative A. Bryan Humphrey as the judge (what a great listener he is!), and the likable Christopher R. Ellis as a good-hearted sheriff.

The production doesn't slip into sentimentality until the last 10 minutes or so. And some of the poor folk - such as the accuser's father - are so one-note, they come across as "Grapes of Wrath" jokes.

But Morgan delivers the important stuff. He reminds us what a timeless tale some "dated" tales can be.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@ aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.