When "Go Set a Watchman" was published two years ago, many of Harper Lee's fans were disappointed that it didn't measure up to her magnificent novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Having seen both the cinematic version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Horton Foote's screenplay adapted to the stage at Houston's Alley Theater, I can relate to how they felt.
Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Lee's novel, now being performed at Theatre Baton Rouge, is not terrible. Those who have never seen Foote's version on screen or stage will probably enjoy it, especially since directors Jenny Ballard and Zac Thriffiley have assembled a capable cast. But it pales in comparison.
What made the book and Foote's adaptation so brilliant were Lee's dialogue, the genuineness of the children's characters and how both the themes and key moments reveal themselves subtly. Sergel's preachy tone about the racism at the root of the story feels like he's beating the audience over the head with a rusty crowbar. The dialogue changes are not improvements, and one of Lee and Foote's most dramatic moments — Scout's discovery of Boo Radley as a hero — has the element of surprise ripped out of it. The children's standoff with racists outside the county jail is chaotic rather than powerful.
If the play is not all it could be, the same can't be said of the performers.
Pete Rizzo is strong as Atticus Finch, the widowed father of two and a small-town Alabama attorney who is the conscience of his family and county. Rizzo is not Gregory Peck and doesn't try to be, and that's a good thing. He comes across with authenticity, which would be hard to do if he tried to be an actor playing an actor playing a part.
Likewise, Addison Prochaska does a great job as Scout Finch, through whose eyes this story takes place. She is cute when she needs to be and older than her years when she's supposed to be. There are moments when Scout; her brother, Jem (Beau Willis); and friend Dill (Joey Roth) could all speak up and a little slower — this is, after all, rural Alabama — to help the audience pick up the words.
Tony Collins channels both the strength and the fear of ill-fated Tom Robinson, doomed to be convicted of a crime he didn't commit. Curtis Coppersmith portrays Bob Ewell as the shiftless, hate-filled racist villain that Lee intended him to be, and Lauren Smith gives Ewell's daughter, Mayella, just the right touch — cruel, ignorant, yet almost sympathetic.
Other supporting performances of note are handled by Allyson Guay, narrating as Jean Louise Finch, the grown-up Scout; Chase Easley as Walter Cunningham; Nancy Litton as Mrs. Dubose; Courtney McKay Murphy as Maudie Atkinson; Kelsie Stampley as Calpurnia; and Robert Wilson as Boo Radley and his father, Nathan.
If those names conjure up distinct memories from the movie, be prepared to meet them afresh in this play.
"To Kill A Mockingbird"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28-30, Oct. 5-7; 2 p.m. Sept. 30, Oct. 1, 8
WHERE: Theatre Baton Rouge's Main Stage, 7155 Florida Blvd.
TICKETS/INFO: $25; $19 for students. (225) 924-6496 or theatrebr.org