The problem with staging a play based on a classic novel that became a classic film is clear enough: Almost everyone in the audience already has a fixed idea of what the characters should look like and sound like.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is full of good performances but collectively the cast never really finds a way to let Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s book stand on its own. The story itself pulls us along, thanks to the melodramatic drive of a lengthy courtroom scene and the evocation a small Alabama town in 1935, but I found myself wondering if I was actually enjoying the Rep show or just remembering the movie.
I think it was a little of both.
The play gives us snippets of Lee’s first-person narration through the presence of the grown-up Jean Louise (Wendy Robie) as she recounts one summer in her childhood when she was an adorable tomboy named Scout who shared precocious adventures with her brother Jem and their friend Dill. Robie’s performance is just fine but there are moments when you just want Jean Louise to get lost because, after all, everybody knows how the story turns out.
But, for the record, let us review. Scout and Jem are the children of attorney Atticus Finch, a widower, who has chosen to defend Tom Robinson, a black man obviously innocent of the crime with which he has been charged: raping and beating a white woman. Atticus goes up against a stacked deck in the courtroom but through the ordeal the children come to see their soft-spoken father in a new, heroic light.
It’s a nice story, prettified by being filtered through a child’s perspective, but at its heart is a brutal reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Tom Robinson, after all, is the victim of monstrous racism, falsely accused by poor white teenager and her father to hide their own grotesque brand of family dysfunction. Unfortunately, this aspect of the play is soft-pedaled to the point of insignificance. Too many moments are played for laughs, and the dramatic impact you know should be there is simply missing. After all is said and done, we’re left with Mockingbird Light.
Everyone on stage seems to have his or her own peculiar version of a Southern accent, but the performances, for the most part, are heartfelt and played with integrity.
John Rensenhouse seems a bit ill-at-ease as Atticus in the early going, although he warms to the dramatic action of the trial in the second act. Ultimately, he delivers a respectable performance, although on press night he seemed to still be finding his way.
Young Daria LeGrand becomes an easy audience favorite as Scout, although it took awhile to get comfortable with her self-perpetuating perkiness. She’s a talented little dynamo and filled the theater with such infectious enthusiasm that her charming presence was impossible to resist. The boys — Adam Moffitt as Jem and Christopher Moffitt as Dill — are less intense and can’t match Daria’s vivid attack.
Nicely executed supporting performances include Julia Lema as Calpurnia, the Finch family’s African-American cook and surrogate mother; Bruce Roach as Sheriff Tate; Kathleen Warfel as the batty next-door neighbor, Mrs. Dubose; Walter Coppage as the golden-throated Rev. Sykes; Robert Guajardo as a no-nonsense judge and Kyle Mowry as Boo Radley.
Standouts include Kathryn Bartholomew, whose evocation of Mayella, Tom Robinson’s false accuser, is note perfect, and James T. Alfred as Robinson, whose unfussy, understated performance as a man confronting his unjust fate provides what the show needs more of — dramatic power.
A major miscalculation comes from Scott Cordes, an actor I’ve admired for many years, whose broad interpretation of Bob Ewell, Mayella’s gutter-trash father, renders the man little more than a hillbilly cartoon. Cordes knows how to get laughs and he got them on opening night. I wish he hadn’t.
Ultimately the show never tugs at our heartstrings the way it should and places the horrors of racism at a nice, comfortable, historic distance from the audience. Nobody has to go home upset.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” runs through Feb. 17 at the UMKC Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $12-$45; 816-235-2700; kcrep.org.