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Hillbarn’s ‘Mockingbird’ fails to soar

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Brian Levi, left, and Anthone Jackson as Tom Robinson appear in Hillbarn Theatre’s ” To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Courtesy Mark Kitaoka)

If the recent death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee engenders a nostalgic hunger to revisit her seminal work, the production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Hillbarn Theatre will do little to satiate it.

As directed by Dawn L. Troupe, the delicate memory-play structure of Christopher Sergel’s stage adaption — framing very timely and challenging themes of race and class — feels like a leaden slog down the well-worn path of this classic tale.

Things open promisingly with clear-voiced Juliana Lustenader, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar to some era-setting songs while the audience settles in. A segue into “I’m Alabama Bound” locates the action and provides a nicely staged introduction of the cast.

However, from there until the pivotal courtroom scenes in the second act, the play is in the hands of an inconsistent company, many of whom are unable to navigate the critical performance middle ground between character sketch and caricature.

There are some bright spots. In addition to Lustenader, who provides emotional anchor points as a warm and wise Maudie Atkinson, the downtrodden Ewells deliver some of the more up to par performances. Henry Kaiser is truly loathsome in character as the abusive father Bob and CC Sheldon generates fire and pity in daughter Mayella’s wounded and feral testimony.

Honorable mention also goes to AnJu Hyppolite’s frequently exasperated Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper, and to Anthone Jackson, whose quiet dignity as the accused Tom Robinson greatly compensates for the unfortunate directorial decision to have him very slowly sing his way from the defense table to the witness stand.

In the role of attorney Atticus, Brian Levi works hard and nobly but never quite connects with the emotional center of the piece, delivering instead a solid, evenly pitched oratory in need of nuance. It’s the same but different for Sarah Birdsall who imbues Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout Finch as narrator, with a constant squinty grimace-grin as if to give some indefinable import to her words.

As the younger Scout, Emily Mannion does a creditable job of merging the rebellious tomboy with the old soul who can stop vigilantes and woo the mentally ill. Still, she and the other promising young actors — Jacob Rosen as brother Jem and Tyler Groshong as buddy Dill — are felled by diction-impeding character accents which makes their dialogue tough to follow.

The physical production is cleverly conceived for the three-quarter thrust stage and well costumed (Mae Heagerty-Matos), but the set, lighting and sound execution are as uninspired as much of the acting, leaving the song of this “Mockingbird” disappointingly unable to soar.


REVIEW

To Kill a Mockingbird
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 27
Tickets: $25 to $48
Contact: (650) 349-6411, www.hillbarntheatre.org

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