Atticus Finch — the hero of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel and the protagonist of the competent if less than stellar stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird now at Hartford Stage — can’t just be a good dad. He’s got to be the best ever, a paragon of benign, bemused affection and somber probity, the dad we all dream of and so rarely get born to. Not to mention he has to be the sole voice of reason in a backwater Alabama town populated by lynch-happy racists. If Gregory Peck hit just the right balance of intellect and emotion in the 1962 film version, current portrayer Matthew Modine seems like a nice enough guy, but doesn’t convey the burning passion that would impel a secular saint. With his still-youthful voice and casual stances, Modine lacks gravitas.
In addition to Atticus, the play rises and falls on the tomboyish charms of his young daughter, Scout, here played by Olivia Scott as a double threat: she pipes and she poses. So high-pitched and piercing is her voice, and so exaggerated her Southern accent, a great many key lines turn out unintelligible, and you may find yourself wondering how her brother happened to be named “Jam.” It’s Jem, actually, and Harry Hodges does a fine job of acting the part, but also, doesn’t quite get the vernacular: he seems to be operating under the misapprehension that a Southern drawl consists of speech slowed down by choppy glottal stops between words.
For the real thing, there is the marvelous Hallie Foote as the adult Scout, popping up from time to time as astringent narrator. Mike Boland is also convincing as the bullying bigot Bob Ewell, and as his slatternly daughter Mayella — whose accusation of rape dooms an innocent black neighbor — Virginia Kull makes the utmost of her few minutes on the stand. Her miserable fidgets and electrifying fury as she rails at Finch for his “fancy airs” set the stage for his empathetic summation: “She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance.” And Jennifer Harmon is so adept at distinguishing her trio of meddling neighbor roles that you never think to question why these characters never happen to appear onstage at the same time.
Director Michael Wilson’s elegant blocking keeps the action moving right along, as does Jeff Cowie’s sketch of a thrust-stage set, with its backdrop of sepia-tinged blow-ups of a homey neighborhood from times gone by. (Just one Chekhovian cavil: If you’re going to put a tire swing onstage, shouldn’t someone get to use it?) David C. Woolard’s period costuming, and John Gromada’s music, which matches in mood the children’s morbid imaginings about their reclusive neighbor “Boo,” also deserve kudos.
All too true to small-town life, though, time passes slowly here, despite the occasional mini-crisis on the domestic front and that one horrendous communal conflict at the play’s center, the upshot of which ends up oddly muted and abstract. In this production, what should be a searing drama enfolding a civics lesson has somehow been turned inside out.