TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD first rehearsal: what we learned

Wednesday | Jan. 18, 2017

Just reading the iconic title of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird conjures up vivid images in people's imaginations: plucky youngsters in overalls, quietly profound discussions on porch swings, and Gregory Peck standing tall in a definitive, indelible performance as Atticus Finch.

Whether through reading the book or seeing the film adaptation, just about everyone has preconceived notions about how Maycomb, Alabama should look, sound and feel.

When the production team and cast met Tuesday for the first rehearsal of The Rep's production of To Kill a Mockingbird, it was clear that this particular adaptation will work both with and against those expectations. It will be a unique production that introduces new artistic elements while still retaining the soul of Lee's beloved tale.

Here's what we learned from the first rehearsal:

1. The set will be a living, breathing character.

Set designer Narelle Sissons showed off her concept for the Mockingbird set, and it's unlike anything we've seen in recent memory. The set will follow the memory of Jean Louise Finch, the elder version of heroine Scout who narrates the play.

It begins almost stripped bare. But as Jean Louise recalls the events of her childhood, Maycomb will spring to life on stage: grass will grow from the ground, a tree on stage will sprout new limbs and pieces of scenery will appear to sketch in the details.

2. Maycomb's African-American community will be ever-present.

In an enhancement of Christopher Sergel's theatrical adaptation, director Risa Brainin and her team have introduced a group of characters called "The Community." These are Maycomb's African-American residents, and their daily lives will form a parallel story to Scout's coming-of-age tale.

3. Music will be an essential part of the production.

Composer and music director Michael Keck (who also portrays Reverend Sykes) will lead performances of several traditional gospel songs and hymns throughout the show. Keck says these musical interludes will complement Jean Louise's narrative, reacting to the play's events almost as "a Greek chorus."

4. Color photos of the Deep South inspired the costumes.

Costume designer Devon Painter drew much of her creative inspiration from a collection of color photos that the Farm Security Administration took of the Deep South in the 1930s. FSA photographers are best known for historic black-and-white shots like "Migrant Mother," but their color photos are just as illuminating. Check out some of the photos Painter used as reference here.


5. This cast is so much fun.

Not to be lost amidst all this artistic talk are Lee's incredible characters. The Rep's cast brought these iconic figures to life during the first table read of the script. Real-life twins Ronan (Jem) and Kaylee Ryan (Scout) — pictured above — make for a delightful sibling tandem, and they're matched by the precocious Dill, played hilariously by Charlie Mathis.

Jonathan Gillard Daly, a veteran of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, brings gravity and depth to Atticus Finch. The rest of the adult cast features a number of well-known St. Louis performers, including Ben Nordstrom, Amy Loui, Jerry Vogel and Whit Reichert.

The group is already bonding beautifully.