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Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' retains its suspense on stage

Jim Wicker, left, and Kibwe Dorsey play Atticus and Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, playing through April 1.

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Jim Wicker, left, and Kibwe Dorsey play Atticus and Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, playing through April 1.

Stageworks producing artistic director Anna Brennen has been wanting to do To Kill a Mockingbird for at least three years, and you can see why in her production that opened last week. It feels as much like a pageant as a play, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, because the Harper Lee novel and Gregory Peck movie have become something like a national rite of passage. Not coincidentally, one of the main uses of the Christopher Sergel stage adaptation is for an annual festival on the downtown square of Lee's hometown, Monroeville, Ala.

The Stageworks production, which takes place on Frank Chavez's imposing set, a multilevel wood contraption, has a homespun, community theater flavor, which is quite appropriate, given the large cast. And it has a top-level actor where it counts, in Jim Wicker's nuanced performance as the lawyer and late-in-life father, Atticus Finch. Wicker has a good way with a Southern drawl and the folksy fables that Atticus relates to teach his children to rise above the racism of their "tired old town" in Depression-era Alabama.

However, there's a problem with the stage version of Mockingbird, because it can't escape that much of the narrative is essentially told from the point of view of Scout, Atticus' precocious young daughter, and as winning as Kristen Powell is in the role, it is a lot to ask for a child actor to carry such a heavy load. The other kids, Jem (Lucas Pasquier) and Dill (Jack Dunham), also have pretty large roles.

For drama, nothing beats a trial, and the highlight of the play is the gripping courtroom scene in which Atticus defends a black man, Tom Robinson (the excellent Kibwe Dorsey), against a transparently false charge of rape by a young white woman. Amanda Welch gives a convincing performance as Robinson's pathetic accuser, and Peter Nason portrays her father as a hulking, malevolent cracker. Frank Jakes is good as the wily prosecutor.

One shortfall in the stage adaptation, perhaps unavoidable, is that by keeping many of the famous high-minded speeches by Atticus more or less intact, at the expense of other aspects of the novel, by the end of the play the country lawyer starts to sound a little too preachy.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues through April 1 at Stageworks, 1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Run time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, including intermission. $24.50, with $10 tickets a half-hour before curtain for students, seniors and military. (813) 251-8984; stageworks.org.

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The Asolo Repertory Theatre has a theme for its 2012-23 season: the American character. "What is the American character? How did it come to be? What is its nature? How has it evolved into what it is now? Where is it going?" asks producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards, in a press release announcing the season.

Fittingly, the musical 1776 opens the Asolo season on Nov. 16 in a production directed by Frank Galati. Also on the schedule are the Kaufman and Hart comedy You Can't Take It With You; David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross; The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein; Clybourne Park, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner by Bruce Norris; The Game's Afoot by Ken Ludwig; and the premiere of Noah Racey's Pulse, a dance musical directed by Jeff Calhoun.

The FSU/Asolo Conservatory also announced its season: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, opening Oct. 30; The Aliens by Annie Baker; Stop/Kiss by Diana Son; and Candida by George Bernard Shaw. Information: (941) 351-8000 or toll free (800) 361-8388; asolorep.org.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampbay.com or (727) 893-8716.

Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' retains its suspense on stage 03/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 7:41pm]

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