MONROEVILLE, Ala. – At its heart, it’s small-town, amateur community theater.
And yet, people come from around the world to see the live stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” performed in its fictional locale for three weeks every spring.
The Mockingbird Players’ production of the cherished literary masterpiece begins its 25th season on April 10 in the southern Alabama hometown of its author, Harper Lee. In her famous novel, she called it Maycomb.
Tickets, available only by phone, went on sale Monday, March 2. The town, about four hours from New Orleans, is 25 miles off Interstate 65 toward Montgomery. The 14 performances will be staged on weekends through May 16.
“Sometimes we worry about ‘Mockingbird’ fatigue,” said Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the Monroe County Historical Society which both produces the play and operates the courthouse museum where it is staged. “But I don’t think we’ve reached our saturation point.”
That seems unlikely, especially with the announcement last month that “Go Set a Watchman,” a Mockingbird sequel by Lee would be released in July amid a flurry of anticipation and controversy. Such is the hubbub that an armed security guard now wards off the uninvited at the Monroeville nursing home where Lee, 88 and reportedly ailing, lives.Over the years the Mockingbird Players have taken their work to London, Jerusalem, Hong Kong and Washington where they performed before Congress and the Supreme Court in the Kennedy Center, plus other closer venues.
But to fully appreciate “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the stage, it has to be seen in the small Alabama town where the story was born.
Audiences view the production’s first act in an amphitheater carved out of the lawn of the 112-year-old courthouse in the heart of this community of about 6,500.
For the climactic second act, the jury trial of accused rapist Tom Robinson, the audience moves inside to the courtroom, which was duplicated on a Hollywood sound stage for the Oscar-winning 1962 movie.
In accordance with the restrictions of 1930s Alabama, white males of voting age are selected from the audience to serve on the jury.
The production includes the jarring, racially charged language that Rogers points out is an essential part of the work as well.
“You feel like there’s a lot riding on you,” cast member Chrissy Nettles said during a recent chilly evening rehearsal held on the courthouse lawn. “You want to make it as authentic as possible because you know this means so much to everybody before they even come here.
“Even before we go into the courtroom, everybody absolutely feels like they’ve been in this place before.”
Nettles, a one-time LSU theater arts major who grew up in New Orleans and later Slidell, is playing Miss Maudie Atkinson, Atticus Finch’s next-door neighbor who also serves as the narrator (in the book and movie, that job belongs to the adult Scout).
Netttles’ 9-year-old son, Andrew, is playing Dill, Scout and Jem’s younger friend based on Truman Capote, who spent part of his childhood here and who set stories such as “A Christmas Memory,” in Monroeville.While Chrissy and Andrew Nettles are newcomers to the cast of 37 (there are two actors for each speaking role with three men rotating the role of Atticus), most of the adults have taken part for several years, including retired police sergeant Robert Champion, who has played Boo Radley since 1995.
For 14 years, Dott Bradley has portrayed Calpurnia, the Finch family maid, in the play’s principal speaking role for an African-American.
“To me, it’s about spreading the message of doing right and having tolerance,” Bradley said. “That’s the message of the book and we’re trying to exemplify that.
“I’ve had white men come up to me afterwards and tell me they were sorry for what took place in the past. That encourages my heart, but we know that things still aren’t always fair.”
That a small town in Alabama would choose to feature itself, albeit in a fictional setting, in such an unfavorable light — there’s a thwarted lynching and the travesty of the verdict plus its tragic consequences — might seem surprising. But Rogers said she views it was an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the region’s history.
More controversial is author Lee’s relationship to the play.
As far as anyone knows, she has never seen it. And, just as it has been the case for a half-century, Lee has not discussed her work and opposes others profiting from it. The historical society recently settled a lawsuit over just that.
Nevertheless, in Monroeville you can stay at the Mockingbird Inn and eat at Radley’s Fountain Grill.
Lee still earns a reported $3 million a year from “Mockingbird,” including royalties from the Monroeville production’s use of the play by Christopher Sergel.
“We regret that there has been strife between us,” Rogers said. “But it does not take away from our using this production to honor and respect Nelle (Lee’s first name, as she is known by in Monroeville) and what she has meant to our community.
“Our hope is that the grace of her work shines through.”