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Theater Review: Tacoma Little Theatre revisits an American treasure

Scout's honor

From left Gunnar Johnson, Jim Rogers and Liberty Evans-Agnew star in Tacoma Little Theatre's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Photo credit: DK Photography

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Few lines of dialogue are surer to bring me to tears than "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing." I'm moved by tales of goodness; if ever there was a novel that pondered the differences between legal, right and good, it's Harper Lee's immortal To Kill a Mockingbird. You've read it, I'm sure. To this day it's one of the most frequently assigned novels in American high schools. If not, you've probably seen the 1962 movie, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a conscientious attorney in small-town Alabama, 1935. He's the father of Jean Louise, better known to readers around the world as our tomboyish narrator, Scout.

There's no getting around the fact that Peck's incarnation of Atticus is iconic, the noblest in movie history according to the American Film Institute. Jim Rogers, star of Tacoma Little Theatre's production, is wise enough to keep a safe distance from Peck's portrayal. Instead, he plays a good, smart attorney and father. That's plenty. Lee's words do the rest.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a tremendously difficult novel to stage. It's tough to cast, squeezes a town into a unit set, and demands maturity from everyone involved. Co-directors Jennifer Niehaus-Rivers and Marty Mackenzie reopen this treasure with the mastery it deserves. The script, fluidly adapted by Christopher Sergel, reminds us not only of the dawn of the Civil Rights era, but also of minorities we continue to diminish in 2014. Time and again, the people of fictional Maycomb reduce a human being to a filthy word that lands on our ears like hot spittle. If you take your kids to see this, and I rather think you should, they may be shocked by its courtroom surprise. Sadly, you'll be less shocked to learn that the case references real court debacles in the 1930s, including one fought by the model for Atticus, Lee's father Amasa.

I sometimes watch children's stage performances through a filter of forgiveness, but for this show, no such allowance is required. Liberty Evans-Agnew, just past her 12th birthday, is outstanding as Scout. Austin Kuetgens Brooks makes a lovable Dill (a character modeled after Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote), Gunnar Johnson a stalwart Jem. Equally impressive are Marion Read as Calpurnia, Kerry Bringman as Sheriff Heck Tate-pretty much everyone in the program. The technical elements, from lights to costumes to consistently Deep Southern accents, are all right on point. As The Joy Luck Club was last spring, this production is a triumph, a jewel in TLT's crown. It deserves a run of full, appreciative houses. We need its heroes now and ever. They remind us we're akin to those we may otherwise exclude: Muslims, atheists, homosexuals, them. Harper Lee gave us only one novel, but boy, talk about knowing when to say when.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 9, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma, $15-$22, 253.272.2281

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