‘Mockingbird’ has ‘lessons we haven’t learned yet’
Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s season begins with a contemporary story that is not the Bard’s but does convey a storytelling power and depth every bit worthy of a Shakespearean play
The production is the stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s directed by Dan Mccleary, TSC’S founder and producing artistic director.
Mccleary is very much concerned with context in presenting TSC’S works. “Mockingbird” will not simply be a fictional story transferred from script to stage. The theatergoer will experience it tied into news events that have gripped the United States even as the nation continues to struggle with civil rights and issues of justice.
“One of my arguments is that classical stories might help us find a safe and galvanizing way to share a narrative,” Mccleary says.
This summer, he gave a talk to a Rotary Club about how Shakespeare’s works, in telling universal stories, might provide clearer understanding to those on all sides of an issue. In an interview this week, Mccleary said Otis Sanford, columnist for The Commercial Appeal who attended the Rotary meeting, found the heart of the speech when he wrote afterward that there is so much social turmoil because, “In essence, we are not speaking the same language.”
Mccleary says Harper Lee’s narrative, like Shakespeare’s stories, has the ability to open up discussion and help people find that same language. “‘Mockingbird’ is, in my opinion, the American masterwork of the 20th century,” he says. “It has lessons we haven’t learned yet.”
So Mccleary will begin the production as he does with many of TSC’S shows — with a setup. He says the company produces its plays environmentally, meaning in part that it gets the audience into the story in a familiar way. “It’s not so much a framing device as it is our way in,” he says. “That’s around the protests that have been top-of-thefold news stories this year, and school closings. We use school closings to set this production in an abandoned high school campus in a neighborhood that’s struggling. The protesters decide to put on a story that potentially can bring people together.”
The production will not change Lee’s language. But it will, as Mccleary says, lean into a few things, such as how Tom Robinson — the African-american wrongly convicted of raping a white woman — ended up being shot 17 times. It will also delve deeper into the lives of key characters Rev. Sykes and Calpurnia.
TSC is staging “To Kill a Mockingbird” in partnership with Hutchison School, where it will be performed at the school’s Wiener Theater.
“Hutchison was a natural for the venue for this classic work,” Mccleary says. TSC has had a relationship with the school through its board and with summer camps held there in the past. Also, he says, it would provide an opportunity to cast some of the girls of Hutchison who are the age “Beauty and the Beast”: Disney musical. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 25 at Theatre Memphis (Lohrey Stage), 630 Perkins Ext. $30 ($15 students), $25 for age 62 and above and military personnel. 901-682-8323. theatrememphis.org “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage”: A live experience, with heart-pounding music, romance and dancing. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $25-$125 plus tax and service fees. Orpheum, 203 S. Main. 901-525-3000. orpheum-memphis.com “The Odd Couple”: Neil Simon’s play about two mismatched roommates. 8 p.m. Fridays-saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 25 at Germantown Community Theatre, 3037 Forest Hill-irene, Germantown. $12-$24. 901453-7447. gctcomeplay.org
of the children in the play.
Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Sept. 20-Oct. 2 at the Wiener Theater at Hutchison School, 1740 Ridgeway. Showtimes: Previews at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, and Thursday, Sept. 23. Regular performances 7 p.m. Sept. 24, 29, 30, Oct. 1; 2 p.m. Sept. 25, Oct. 2. Tickets: $34; preview performances $16; Sept. 29 performance is Free Will Kids’ Night; seniors (62-plus): $29; students (18-plus): $16. More information: 901-759-0604 and tnshakespeare.org.
LEAPING INTO 30
Ballet Memphis opened its 30th season Saturday with a performance under the stars at the Live Garden at the Memphis Botanic Garden.
This is the third year the company has started its season at the outdoor stage, and this one worked beautifully. The weather was nigh unto perfect for an evening of motion, with three works giving a variety of entertainment.
The main piece was Steven Mcmahon’s “Carnival of the Animals,” set to the score by Saint-saëns and featuring dancers cavorting amusingly as all manner of wildlife. It was a costume designer’s showcase, and Bruce Bui continues his extraordinary and inventive work, putting the dancers into eye-popping outfits.
“Carnival” was a tasty confection that went between two more substantial pieces, Trey Mcintyre’s “In Dreams” and Brian Mcsween’s “Pushin’ the Stone,” both bursting with Memphis influences.
“In Dreams” has become the piece that Ballet Memphis takes on tour, knocking out audiences with its Roy Orbison score and fresh choreography, which the New York Times decreed in 2010 was “distinctive, touching and ambiguous.”
“Pushin’ the Stone,” meanwhile, is even newer, first performed in May in a tent where the new Ballet Memphis building is going up in Overton Square. McSween, the company’s ballet master, is in his second year here, having served as associate artistic director with the Joffrey Concert Group and as guest teacher with the Grand Rapids Ballet and as adjunct professor of dance at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
It took him no time at all to glom onto the Memphis vibe, and he showed it by pairing tunes from local musicians with some terrific movement that brought the audience to its feet — an auspicious start to a promising season.
‘OUT OF THE CLOSET’
Emerald Theatre Company, which for several years now has been staging works relating to the LGBT experience, tried something a bit risky over the weekend.
Instead of producing a single play, it put out a call for short plays that would be culled and the winners presented as part of its “Out of the Closet” Playwriting Contest.
Eight of the 42 submissions survived and were presented, pulling in good size audiences at TheatreWorks.
As with eight of almost anything, some worked better than others, although they all had something a little different to offer.
W.L. Newkirk’s “Suffocation” won the top prize. It tells the story of an unusual tourist attraction — the universal closet door from which LGBT people must emerge if they’ve decided to go public.
The most energetic and best written of the bunch was Joe Gulla’s “Sleeping With the Fish,” a sharp comedy of two mobsters who have just disposed of the remains of an associate. The two, as it happens, are good mafiosi with wives and children, and they also happen to be lovers. Mark Pergolizzi and Daniel Martine are pitch-perfect as the wiseguys.
Give a round of applause to Caroline Sposto, who came up with the idea and produced the festival, gathering the entries, the six directors and two dozen actors and presenting a memorable theater experience. .
Ann Wallace (Calpurnia), Ainsley Lorentz Geno (Scout), Patrick Ryan Sullivan (Atticus) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird. “