Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1992
Remember Atticus Finch? And his spunky little daughter Scout? They’re coming to San Diego , as Lamb’s Players Theatre opens “To Kill a Mockingbird” (April 24-May 30).
The first and only novel of Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961; the unforgettable film version, starring Gregory Peck, was released the next year. “That movie, which I saw when I was young,” says Lamb’s artistic director Robert Smyth, “was one of the reasons I wanted to go into theater. The story had a sense of power for me — about community, integrity, standing up for a personal sense of conscience, raising a voice against mass-mindedness in a context of bigotry. The power of that image and story so affected me as a child, it’s something I constantly carry with me. The strength of that storytelling helped point me toward theater.”
The novel, set in a small Alabama town in the 1930’s, is narrated by an 8 year-old girl, Scout Finch, whose father Atticus, a lawyer, tears into a whole social fabric when he agrees to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
The book took the country by storm. Richard Sullivan, writing in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, called it “a novel of strong contemporary national significance.” Critical reviews griped about excessive melodrama and sentimentality, which were Smyth’s chief complaints about Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation. “We’re using the script as a launching pad,” the director admits. “We’re gonna make it unique.” He’s doing that in two ways: First, by telling the story as a flashback, from the point of view of the grown-up Scout. Second, Smyth has cast a real father-daughter team to play Atticus and young Scout.
Carrie Heath, age nine, hasn’t had much onstage experience, but she’s been steeped in theater her whole life. Her father, David Cochran Heath, a Lamb’s full-time staff member for eleven years, has been actively involved in innumerable productions. (In fact, he was torn between the stage and the delivery room on the night of her birth; he managed to be present for both productions). Her mother Beth is bookkeeper and executive assistant to the artistic director of Lamb’s. Carrie’s watched the whole theatrical process, from audition through rehearsal to opening night. She and her brother Allan, age 7, appeared in a Lamb’s Christmas show four years ago. She’s attended Lamb’s drama camp, studied gymnastics and performed in ballet recitals. Not a very extensive resume, but the kid exudes confidence.
“I think it’ll be pretty easy to play the part of my dad’s daughter,” Carrie says. “I was surprised when I got the part, because some of the other girls had more experience. But I felt really excited. I can memorize pretty well, and I’ll probably practice at home with my dad. I think it’ll be fun.”
Dad thinks so, too. “I was really pulling for her,” David Heath admitted. “But then, when she got cast, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this could be a scary experience.’ There’s always the possibility of failure, or failure to meet the expectations of others. I’m more nervous for her than I ever was for myself. But I’m very excited about the exposure it’ll give her. She’s in a muti-racial, multi-ethnic school (Carrie is part of the Gifted and Talented program at a writing and literature magnet school in Chula Vista), but this play really deals with the heart of human nature’s tendency to want to find people you can feel superior to. The story helped me to understand racism today.”
Heath sees pluses and minuses in the father-daughter casting. “One of the advantages is the familiarity you need to make the whole thing believable. That we’ve got. But if the girl were not somebody I knew, it would help bring out some of the distance you had in the South at that time. The father figure was slightly unapproachable. But this story is a little bit of a departure. Because Scout’s mother has passed away, her father tries to be her confidant, has to be the one to help her deal with questions about sexuality and rape.”
Is he worried that Carrie will bring these questions home? “Well,” Heath says pensively, “we’ve always tried to create an atmosphere in which questions are easy to ask. It might be interesting to see what comes up now. It might prove to be a steppingstone to good conversation at home… One thing that helps me relax in this whole process is that I know the director so well. I trust him as an artist and in his ability to communicate. That relieves me of responsibility and uncomplicates the relationship; I don’t have to be actor, director and father all at the same time. But Carrie will have to learn that onstage, she’s not my daughter; she’s another actor working with me. We’re on equal footing, and we both have to listen to the director.
“The thing that excites me about it,” Heath continues, “is I keep thinking, ‘What a marvelous piece to have a chance to do as a child.’ It has strong things to say about character and choice and the worth of an individual. Heartwarming things about human relations with people, whether they look like us or not. A great supplementary education. And an adventure for all of us.”
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.