August 8, 2014

My triumphant return to the stage

Last December I auditioned for a role in the Great Theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Great Theatre primarily produces children's theater and musicals, so this was a rare opportunity. "Good," I thought to myself, "I won't have to sing or dance or kiss anybody." Not that I'm against people doing those things on stage, but I have long held the suspicion that directors and audiences merely tolerate my version of singing, dancing and romancing because A) I'm married to Aimee and they need her around, B) I've done some classical theater and people are impressed by that and C) I'm one of five men that showed up to audition and the production happens to call for five adult male parts.

Mockingbird calls for several adult male actors, Bob Ewell (the evil racist incestuous piece of filth that largely drives the plot), Boo Radley (needs no introduction, right?), the Sheriff, the Judge, some farmers, Tom Robinson and Rev. Sykes (both of whom are, preferably, played by black actors). But of course the great role for a man of a certain age is Atticus Finch.

Atticus, as written by Harper Lee, is the greatest father in American literature. Or perhaps all of literature. Who else is even close? Mr. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice? Bob Cratchit? King Lear? Arthur Weasley? Lyra's dad from The Golden Compass?I haven't read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but I hear that dad's pretty amazing. Atticus is everything a child could wish in a father: kind, noble, patient, idealistic but practical. He teaches Scout to read by having her sit in his lap while he narrates newspapers aloud. He's a dead shot, but he gives up hunting because his talent gives him an unfair advantage over the birds and the beasts. He's a celibate widow, and Maudie Atkinson, the only sensible woman in town, carries a huge torch for him. He lives in Depression-era Alabama but, according to Scout, the first time that she saw him break a sweat was in his summary speech at Robinson's trial.

As a father of a boy and a girl a little younger than Jem and Scout, I relished the idea of taking on Atticus. I thought I might give him more humor and maybe a little more softness than Gregory Peck's famous stolid film performance. My audition felt pretty rusty, however, and I wasn't surprised when an older, more stolid, and much taller performer was cast (and, please don't mistake my tone, he was great in the role and great to work with). It turned out that I'd be making my triumphant return to the stage after a seven-year hiatus in the role of Mr. Gilmer, lawyer for the prosecution.

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It turned out to be a good role, striking a nice balance between stage time (only in two scenes, which keeps the rehearsal load down) and juicy lines (lots of 'em). The other part I was intrigued with was Bob Ewell, a fire-breathing racist of nearly cartoonish malevolence, playing him would have been an opportunity to say and do things that are, in 21st Century Central Minnesota, more transgressive than MacBeth's regicide.

But Gilmer was a different opportunity. Although his character is not particularly crucial for the courtroom drama part of the plot, his slimy, patronizing, and subtle racism is more important to portray from a cultural standpoint. Gilmer represents the institutional racism that is far more prevalent today than a Jim Crow era lynch mob. He doesn't expect much from poor black people, in fact he's utterly convinced of their inferiority. The very fact that they are so frequently accused of crimes demonstrates the importance of his role in putting them behind bars. He pities black people, and when a young black man has the temerity to pity Bob Ewell's poor white trash daughter, he responds with incredulity and vicious condescension. Inhabiting his role turned out to be a very interesting and a little discomfiting ride.

It was a lot of fun to perform again, and any part is welcome. The kind of character work that Gilmer let me do was very rewarding, and it's the kind of part I can look forward to for awhile. I'm too old to be the lover, too young to be the king. There are some great villains I might be suited for, but I'm really just hoping to play a person with an interesting point of view. Or a pirate.

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