At the early December opening of To Kill a Mockingbird at the historic Bonstelle Theatre, the house lights were still on and the modestly sized audience was still finding seats while the stage, unveiled, was finished being dressed. It was the subject of chatter all around. Heads tilted and watched as seemingly random ticket holders were plucked from their seats and asked to sit on benches on stage. They were whispered stage directions and remained stoic for the performance. Seated left of center, I had the best view of a retired dad in navy fleece and freshly starched khakis with his Christmas sweater-clad wife. Seated closest, however, was an effete guy in cowboy boots and a triple-tight Mickey Mouse T-shirt that he adjusted compulsively. At one point during the play, he dropped what looked like a travel-size hand lotion, which would've been perfectly well had he been seated in seat 40 row M, where I was. At intermission, the director confirmed that some of those reseated ticket holders were actually theatre students at Wayne State University. The director's idea to place plainclothes students and random audience members on stage, she said, was born from the same concept as placing white faces on the "colored" side of the court room and black faces in the "white only" section, which she did for trial scenes. "I thought it would be a way to bring the entire audience closer to the story and to the action, that they'd be able to see the story from another angle." But Harper Lee's novel of racial inequality, To Kill a Mockingbird, achieves that within the text — reflective sentiment for the white reader is what the story hinges on.
Sometimes — but especially when dealing with material so deeply sewed into popular culture — it's best to stick to the script. (Christopher Sergel, the dramatist who wrote the adaptation presented Friday, did a fine job.) Actors Siena Hassett and Robbie Dwight did exceptionally well at doing just that, thus not only saving, but making this play.
In order to force our suspension of disbelief, which was shaken by the curious placement of personnel, we needed to hope for Atticus, even though we know Tom Robinson's fate was sealed, and we needed to know that Scout's wit and rebellion had been humbled by the most horrific side of man.
Dwight transforms into the fatherly archetype Atticus Finch, a man double the actor's age, a white lawyer who defends blacks in the deep South during the 1930s. He bears the wear and wisdom of his years. Dwight's portrayal succeeds in showing us various takes on frustration, each with its own tone and face: There are the frustrations of a single father, an overworked professional, a righteous man on a righteous path, the ill-at-ease protector, and the natural born mediator. All those notes form a strong chord.
Delightfully so, Siena Hassett is a rubbery animation of Scout Finch. Tapping into genuine physical comedy, she twists her mouth, bends her delicate figure, and widens her eyes in exciting combination. And where Dwight shows us frustration, Hassett deconstructs degrees of innocence, until there is almost none left.
As part of an exceptionally soulful choir, Wayne State University senior Ciarah Mosley puts in an understated yet not unnoticed performance as Calpurnia. Actor Patrick Loos is terrifically loathsome as Bob Ewell.
At 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Dec. 10-12, at the Bonstelle Theatre, 3424 Woodward Ave., one block south of Mack Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2960; bonstelle.com; tickets $12-$15. To Kill a Mockingbird is paired with the Hilberry Theatre's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. You can attend performances of both award-winning American masterpieces for $25.