PSCS ‘Mockingbird’ resonates with courage and hope

The Penn State Centre Stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” delivers a powerful message on many levels.

Its own history is telling: The tale set in 1935 began as a book by Harper Lee in 1960, became a film in 1962, and playwright Christopher Sergel began writing the play in 1970, with revisions occurring both before and after its 1991 debut.

Staged in 2019, the play’s resonance is only amplified by current times.

The story of the courtroom defense of a black man by white attorney Atticus Finch in small town Alabama immediately draws one into a simpler time as children play in a yard, a maid hands a father a metal lunchbox and the man goes off to work.

The unfamiliar could hope for continued harmony, or at least simple children’s predicaments. What emanates instead is a flood of moral dividends, through actions large and small: insights into what makes for true courage, gentleness, selfless love and hope.

The accused man is charged with the rape of a white woman, and Finch’s uphill battle against a culture ingrained with bigotry and distrust, also reveals other injustices in the social fabric.

The highly focused cast under the direction of Susan H. Schulman aptly convey a powerful message. This group of mostly undergraduate students of the Penn State School of Theatre includes three local elementary and middle school students, the school’s own college dean and a retired professor who first brought her acting skills to Penn State 54 years ago.

Eliza Marcovitch brings spirit and poise to the role of Scout, the attorney’s willful daughter, and Caleb Taylor Smith is natural as her older brother, Jem. Sacha Buckland and Luca Snyder are engaging as the youthful Walter Cunningham Jr. and Dill Harris.

Steve Snyder evokes a calm, unflappable Finch as both father and attorney. Sadie Spivey captures the internal struggle of Mayella Ewell, the alleged crime victim, and Jake Roman is convincing as her troublemaking father.

Amina Faye is outstanding as the multifaceted Calpurnia, the wise and dedicated maid who is like a mother to the Finch children.

Helen Manfull easily mixes gentility and brimstone as the cantankerous, wheelchair-confined Mrs. Dubose. Timothy Washington transfixes as the composed, respectful accused, Tom Robinson. Dean Barbara Korner is natural as Miss Maudie, a neighbor who tries to helps the Finch children recognize their father’s virtue.

The sets by Tania Barrenechea include housefronts that easily make way for courtroom tables, and a rear-set bottle tree provides poignant visual and auditory moments in addition to referencing its African origin.

Several moments are quite striking, such the twilight scene at the end of Act I, when lights are fading to sad strains of “Amazing Grace.”

The mature subject matter and some terms used may be disturbing to some viewers.

The music, including live performances by the Elmer Iseler Singers, is introspective and reverent. Austin M. Rausch’s costumes immerse one in the time and place, and the lighting by Noah Guth and sound by Desne Wharton enrich the action with memorable detail.

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