To stage a ‘Mockingbird’ in Aspen
September 24, 2009
ASPEN – In “After the Storm,” a documentary about staging a musical in post-Katrina New Orleans that shows this week at Aspen Filmfest, the producer throws up his hands on the eve of opening night. He has finally given in to the reality that the show isn’t going to be perfect; there hasn’t been enough time, talent, resources. The scene seems to indicate an essential truth about theater, whether in a decimated New Orleans community center or a shining Broadway venue: It’s never easy.
So it comes as a shock, almost a scandalous revelation, when Greg Johnson acknowledges that his latest directorial effort has been … easy. Johnson, who worked in New York City for 20 years, isn’t patting himself on the back for his smooth direction. Nor is he necessarily heaping praise on the actors in Montana Repertory Theatre, the Missoula-based company he has led for another two decades. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of the material he is working with: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s 1960 novel that tackles race, justice and childhood in Alabama.
“It really rolls into place,” said Johnson. “The characters are so rich. She’s so spare – the characters are drawn fast; you get to their core quickly. That’s great fun for a director of theater. And it’s so iconic. Everybody’s read it at some point in their lives. You just don’t want to get in the way of one of the greatest stories ever told.”
Perhaps making it even easier for Johnson is that he is in the middle of his second production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He first directed the play – Christopher Sergel’s adaptation that dates back to the early ’60s, and remains the only sanctioned stage version of the book – 15 years ago. He returned to it last year with a five-month tour that proved so popular that the production was given another three months on the road. The latest stretch brings the play to the Wheeler Opera House on Monday, Sept. 28. The performance kicks off a month of events – readings, discussions, screenings of the 1962 Oscar-winning film and more – in the national program The Big Read, presented locally by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. (For a full schedule of local events, go to aspenwriters.org.)
Making Johnson’s job easier still is the fact that the central theme of Lee’s novel – racial injustice – is one that always seems at the forefront of the American conversation. When Johnson, in 1994, signed the contract to present “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it happened to be the day that O.J. Simpson was being arrested on charges of murdering his ex-wife, opening up one of the country’s most intense and complex chapters in race relations. Three days before last year’s production opened, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the U.S.’s first African-American president.
“That’s a pretty interesting bookend of experiences with that show,” said Johnson. The latest round of performances, Johnson added, comes on the heels of controversial comments by Jimmy Carter on the subject of racism aimed at Obama, and the “You lie” taunts directed at the president by U.S. Representative Joe Wilson.
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“There’s something about the race issue that just sits in the American consciousness,” Johnson said. “And now it’s on people’s minds, for good or ill.”
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The subject of race was raised, with “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a reference point, in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Writer Malcolm Gladwell criticizes Atticus Finch – the fictional lawyer who gamely defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman – as being overly tolerant of his neighbor’s prejudice, too mellow, not looking at racism and hatred in its broader context.
“I don’t agree,” Johnson said. “I think ‘Mockingbird”s been around so long, it’s open game for some people. People want to stake their claim on it.
“And the people” – like Atticus – “preaching understanding and tolerance, as corny as that may sound, it is the answer. These days, with sound bites, vitriol, people trying to be louder and nastier than the other guy, I think a bit of Atticus would be au courant.”
Johnson observes that, among the many things to love about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is that it doesn’t try to be loud or preachy. The final scene in the book has Atticus putting his daughter Scout to bed.
“It’s a very quiet ending,” he said. “The light fades and it ends with that. It’s not a big boom, a big climax. It’s a quiet ending for a quiet guy. It’s an interesting hero.”
Atticus brings an interesting nuance of suspense to the story. The big question mark in the plot is whether Tom will be found innocent at trial, and Atticus it seems is genuinely uncertain about the outcome. When Scout asks if he’s going to win, Atticus replies, “No, honey.” At other times Atticus can’t imagine that Tom, an honest family man with a lame arm, will be judged guilty – even in the pre-Civil Rights Act deep South.
“He knows the deck is stacked against him. He knows no black man has ever gotten off after being accused of raping a white woman,” Johnson said. “But he hopes a miracle will happen.”
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The satisfaction provided by “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for a reader or director, is enhanced by the multiple narratives. The story is only partly about race and Atticus’ defense of Tom. Lee also creates a vivid portrait of childhood. In Johnson’s view, Atticus is not even among the three central characters in the book; he believes the three primary figures are Scout, the precocious, tomboy narrator; her older brother Jem; and their friend Dill, who visits them in the tiny town of Maycomb, Ala. each summer.
“It’s how they deal with justice, injustice and prejudice. It’s how they grow up,” he said. Johnson says that Scout gets the funniest, and perhaps most poignant line in the story. She tells Miss Maudie, the Finch’s enlightened neighbor, that, after being nearly killed by the hateful Bob Ewell and rescued by the reclusive Boo Radley, she doesn’t have all that much left to learn. “Except maybe algebra,” says Scout.
“Which is so funny, always gets a laugh,” Johnson said. “Because she’s just seen so much. It’s a year when there’s so much growing up going on, and the innocence is being worn away.”