What's an O.J. junkie to do? That rascally Judge Ito recessed the Simpson trial for four days, and it looked like a long weekend, indeed, until I found myself at Phoenix Theatre's immensely satisfying production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

There is something inherently dramatic about trials: two sides in conflict, the truth slowly revealed through details of human behavior, the verdict depending on whom is believed. Most of all, the search for justice.

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is autobiographical evidence that a black man in the South of 1935 could not receive a fair trial. Her hero in this saga is Atticus Finch, who, like Lee's own father, is a small-town defense lawyer whose quiet intensity and moral courage come to the aid of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus tells his son: "Courage is not a man with a knife in his hand. Courage is fighting for what is right, even when you know you're going to lose."

Seen through the prism of current events, Atticus, with his low-key dignity and moral authority, could be of use now.

Today's delicately balanced question, of course, is the flip side of Mockingbird: whether slaughtered white victims can receive a fair verdict should Marcia Clark prove her case against O.J. Simpson.

Not long ago, though, the videotaped beating of Rodney King was adjudged justifiable by an all-white jury. And recent events suggest that the ways Phoenix police treat black defendants may be questioned even today.

So it seems very timely, indeed, for Phoenix Theatre to offer us a chance to see our values dramatized on the stage in an adaptation of Harper Lee's novel by Christopher Sergel.

Sergel had his work cut out for him. Conceived as a novel and then beautifully realized as a film, Mockingbird cries out for a larger canvas than a stage--even a very large stage--can provide.

We miss the Halloween encounters with the mysterious Boo Radley, the mentally deranged bogeyman who lives down the street. We can't see the mad dog, foaming at the mouth, that Atticus drops with one shot (although the stage director has done his best to solve this problem with imaginative music suggesting the approach of the dog). Most of all, we miss the attempted escape of the accused rapist, Tom Robinson, and his violent death with 17 bullet wounds.

These events can only be narrated, and although the narration is well-done, it can't bring us the excitement of visual action.

Film also provides an intimacy with the characters that is difficult to match onstage. Close-ups let us see what the spoken word cannot convey, and the underwritten role of Atticus particularly benefits from such intimacy.

Still, the stage has advantages over film, and this production capitalizes on them. These actors play with a conviction that cannot easily be dismissed. The theatre has an immediacy and a moral urgency that film rarely achieves.

Sergel's adaptation lacks focus, and seems to drift forward rather than accumulate impetus, but that is the style of the novel. What he cannot show us he has telescoped into narrative that only occasionally seems preachy or self-righteous. Sergel has written with economy and feeling, and he has wisely allowed Lee's great story to unfold at its own pace. Thom Gilseth's sprawling set suggests the whole town of Macomb, Alabama, with the outlines of five houses surrounding the action. The effect is aided by the evocative lighting by Paul Black.

And the beguiling performances of three young actors lead the large cast of Phoenix Theatre to create an entire town, with all the gossip and the rhythms of daily life. Jenny Hintze plays the central role of Scout, the daughter of the heroic attorney, and her journey into understanding is beautifully captured in a performance that is so simple and direct as to seem effortless. Hintze longs to be a Broadway actor; if she can stay the course of integrity on which she has embarked, she might well make it.

Scout's brother, Jem, is played with alternating charm and teenage frustration by Michael Vincente.

His best friend is the strange Dill, who visits Macomb, then, unwanted by his parents, runs away to live with Atticus and his family. Dill is based on the young Truman Capote (Harper Lee's childhood friend), and Philip Dawkins plays him with such a winning, unconventional lan that his asexual candor is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere choked with prejudice.

Michelle Konevich and Loring Olk supply menacing, white-trash villains, and Khalid Bilton is noble and sympathetic as their tortured victim. Robert Garthwaite is completely convincing as the judge, bringing an essential authenticity to the legal proceedings.

In the role of Atticus, the able Nicolas Glaeser struggles manfully to flesh out a character that is so saintly, as written, that very little in the way of other dimensions exists. Glaeser also must carry an unenviable burden: the memory of Gregory Peck's Academy Award-winning performance in the 1962 film.

Glaeser's best moment comes with his spellbinding summation to the courtroom drama. There Glaeser achieves the deep conviction that eludes him through much of the play.

Director Michael D. Mitchell has kept the staging both fluid and stately. Courageously, he has allowed his actors the luxury of an unhurried pace that seems exactly right for this sleepy Southern town.

Mitchell has been blessed with the presence of Rene Morgan Brooks as the family's black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Brooks plays with such a relaxed dignity that she emotionally grounds the whole production.

Phoenix Theatre's To Kill a Mockingbird is a fine evening of human drama, and you can be doubly moved if it also stimulates you to rent the video. That's what I plan to do.

Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Lanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams and Jules Feiffer. Mason is now associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University.


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