Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fracaswell Hyman directs brilliant "To Kill a Mockingbird"

My friend Cas Hyman is working in the theater again - and are we lucky to have him back in that genre! Cas directed a stage adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," which opened this past Wednesday night at the Intiman Theater in Seattle (Intiman wins Tony as best regional theater). I traveled to Seattle mid-week, arriving in time to catch a preview performance as well as opening night, before hopping on a red eye and heading back to NY.

I have worked with Cas on and off for many years in children's television, and one of his great strengths has always been casting and working with child actors. That talent was critical in this production, since the story is told from the point of view of 8-year-old Scout, along with her brother Jem and friend Dill. Young Kealon Whittaker shone in the role of Scout - she convincingly portrayed the cocky tomboy to frequent laughter from the audience, and was heartbreakingly bewildered as she tried to understand what was happening when the lynch mob threatened Atticus as he sat guard outside the jailhouse where the accused rapist, the Negro Tom Robinson, was being held.

Cas and scenic designer Alec Hammond went way out on a limb with the set, which was a heightened, symbolic representation of small town Maycomb, Alabama, dominated by a blood red tree and red kitchen chairs, of all shapes and sizes, suspended from the ceiling by nooses. The dangling, "lynched" chairs overhead served to pull the audience straight into the drama, which we were to be anyway, as the lawyers argued their cases to us, the jury.

I was particularly moved by the musical choices he made for the play. Hyman opened up the script to include the hymn "Blessed Assurance." We first hear it when Calpurnia (in a warm and nuanced portrayal by Josephine Howell) sings it under her breath as she folds laundry on the front porch. Rev. Sykes (William Hall Jr.) arrives to ask for extra donations to help Tom Robinson's family, and he joins in. Then the white neighbor, Maudie Atkinson (Patti Cohenour, known to Broadway theatergoers in the role of Signora Naccarelli from The Light in the Piazza), joins in from her nearby porch. Both women are powerful singers, and the moment is transcent - until they are angrily shushed by Mrs. Dubose for making so much confounded noise! Later in the play Calpurnia reprises a halting, poignant version of the song, her arms sheltering the children, when they hear the terrible news that Tom Robinson has been killed.

I asked Cas how he had chosen this piece of music, and he said that he'd been listening to his iPod on "shuffle," and Blessed Assurance came on, sung by Gladys Knight. "I listened to the words," he said, "and I knew that I had to use this song." He went on to say that he believed that the promise in these words would have enabled Calpurnia and other Negroes in Maycomb to endure the daily injustices and cruelty of life in the Alabama in the 1930s.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God.
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angles descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest;
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

In addition, Cas asked composer and harmonica virtuoso Grant Dermody to write an understated "Scout's theme" and other incidental music for the production. Sean Phillips, the actor who played Tom Robinson, also appeared as an anonymous harmonica player, who casually played from various spots (up in the tree, leaning on a fence) at critical moments in the story. Talking to Dermody later, I was stunned to learn that he taught Phillips how to play harmonica for this production! To hear his haunting, soulful playing, one never could have guessed that he's only been playing for a few weeks.

A word here about the Intiman Theater and its relationship to the greater Seattle community. I was invited to the opening night, pre-theater dinner, where I was seated next to actor Tom Skerritt ("A River Runs Through It"), a longtime Seattle resident and charming, if somewhat ascerbic, dinner companion! Of course, all the theater's patrons and sponsors were being feted. But also present were the members of the "Community Committee," a number of whom spoke to the assembled group. The Intiman is particularly proactive, with each of their plays, in trying to discern the core message of the work, and then reaching out to try to bring that message (along with the production) to numerous schools and other community groups. In the case of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus' admonition to Scout and Jem that they need to "walk in the other person's shoes" before criticizing them is a powerful community rallying message. The passion and diversity of the committee members was moving and inspiring. I filled out my card and became an Intiman supporter right at the table.

Cas has many friends in the television industry in both NY and LA. Most of them will probably not see this production, but they would not be surprised at its excellence. I hope he is able to work in the theater again and often.

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