In Guthrie Theater’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a “Watchman” quietly waits

In Guthrie Theater’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a “Watchman” quietly waits

I didn’t read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird until I reviewed it for a children’s literature class I was taking in college. On my review, my professor commented, “not really a children’s book.”

That’s a matter of semantics, but the book is often picked up by young readers—and it feels like a children’s book, not only because it’s told from a child’s point of view but because of its moral certitude. Though our hearts are broken—along with young Scout’s—by the injustice visited upon the falsely accused Tom Robinson, Scout’s father Atticus is revered as one of the truest moral compasses in 20th century literature. Though evil and weakness exist in the world, we’re left understanding, we can at least discern right from wrong and be true to our consciences.

The shocking Go Set a Watchman—Lee’s second published novel, which takes us back to Macomb when Scout is a woman in her 20s—is most definitely not a children’s book. It functions as a sequel, though Lee wrote it before Mockingbird, and it’s a book no other writer could have dared to imagine as a successor to the beloved classic. Rife with moral ambiguity, Watchman dramatizes the sad truth that Atticus, who bravely defended a black man in the 1930s, could have gone on to oppose integration in the 1950s with no sense that the two actions were contradictory.

Atticus’s racist remarks in Watchman have been widely quoted, but what’s less often noted is the context in which those comments are made: the elderly lawyer’s pragmatic defense of his participation in organizations like the pro-segregation Citizens’ Council. Atticus sees himself as a moderating influence on his more hyperbolic peers, and he defends his attending a Klan meeting by telling the appalled Scout that he simply wanted to see which of his fellow citizens were participating.

In Watchman, Atticus becomes the kind of character who doesn’t exist in Mockingbird: a person whose stated principles conflict with his behavior. Scout thought she understood what her father believed in—as did we all—but it turns out that what she learned from her father was perhaps more than he meant to teach her.

The existence of Watchman adds a new poignance to the production of To Kill a Mockingbird now on stage at the Guthrie Theater. As we witness Scout’s disillusionment, we now know that when Lee wrote this story, she had already written about a future in which Scout’s world is even more deeply rocked—in a seeming betrayal by her father himself.

Director John Miller-Stephany, working from a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, has a steady hand with his sturdy and modest cast. With the exception of a booming Peter Thomson as Judge Taylor, no one chews the scenery here: everything is in service to the story, which compels on stage just as it has on page and screen for over half a century.

With narration by Maudie Atkinson (Stacia Rice) helping to finesse transitions, the play runs through all the book’s most iconic moments: Atticus (a competent but undistinguished Baylen Thomas) shooting a rabid dog (somewhat less nervously than in the book), Jem (Noah Deets and Lorenzo Reyes, alternately) feuding with Mrs. Dubose (Candace Barrett Birk), Scout (Mary Bair and Isadora Swann, alternately) innocently stopping a lynch mob in its tracks. The central courtroom scenes are handled with patience and focus, showcasing the considerable acting chops of a vicious Bruce Bohne as Bob Ewell, an almost unrecognizable Ashley Rose Montondo as alleged rape victim Mayella Ewell, and a poignantly vulnerable Ansa Akyea as Tom Robinson.

James Youmans’s set is elegantly conceived—with a nifty and subtle use of forced perspective—but the decision to render it entirely in shades of woodgrain feels akin to someone dressing entirely in shades of blue denim. (Of course, characters in this play actually do that, so maybe it makes sense.) Sound designer Scott W. Edwards effectively incorporates a fiddle-and-banjo score, though the production as a whole is gratifyingly restrained in its use of atmospherics—and under dialect coach Lucinda Holshue, the cast are remarkably consistent in their Alabama accents.

This production will be a balm to Mockingbird fans who’ve had a rough summer of it with the flood of headlines like “New Harper Lee novel presents an unsaintly Atticus Finch” and “Harper Lee shows Atticus Finch’s racist side in Go Set a Watchman, the Internet reacts.” This Mockingbird keeps Atticus on his pedestal, buoyed by his daughter’s simple faith. I hope the next To Kill a Mockingbird production I see, though, includes Go Set a Watchman as its second act.

Jay Gabler