Most of us met the ideal single father in the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” nearly sixty years ago. Gregory Peck made an indelible stamp on the character of Atticus. We can all hear him declare softly, sternly but with a father’s love, “Go home, Jem. Take Scout and Dill home,” as he stands between the jail door and a would-be lynch mob.
Then Harper Lee’s other book, “Go Set a Watchman” appears a few years ago, and gives us a more human view of a white Southern lawyer living in the 1950s. The debate is on: Is Atticus racist or a product of his Alabama culture? Somewhere in between resides the real Atticus Finch.
The problem for the modern actor reprising the role of Atticus becomes two-fold. How do you play Atticus without being imitation Gregory Peck and how do you represent Atticus as less than ideal and more human. Long time community actor Jeff Cote’ found this iconic role to be close to home.
Cote’ relates personally to the character of Atticus as he is close to the character’s age, approaching fifty, and he’s a parent who works in an office. Both Cote’ and Atticus, as fathers, present a high standard for their children. They are both average men who have good morals. So, for Cote’ the role, he says, “Is not a stretch, is closer to home, not so demanding of energy” to get into character.
The challenge for Cote’, playing someone that everyone already holds the image of Cote’ says, “Gregory Peck made Atticus Finch bigger than life; he’s everyone’s ideal. My Atticus is my version.” He thinks how modern actors like Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon might play Atticus rather than Gregory Peck. Cote’ developed his version of Atticus through a careful study of the character.
He read a biography of Atticus Finch by Joseph Christino that brought Atticus down off of the pedestal. Cote’ said this book was “a full study of the character” and made Atticus “more human, less ideal.” Yet, he was not the racist that is hinted at in “Go Set a Watchman.”
Yet the story reminds the reader and spectator about racism and injustice. For Cote,’ this timely production, while it puts “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a different light, resonates with the theme, the need for tolerance. Cote’ reminds us, “We still have racial troubles. People with supremacist views seem to be more prominent as the spotlight seems to be on the right or the left. People are looking for a moral guide.”
Two other challenges offer themselves to any actors performing in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” First, using a Southern accent may be difficult for any actor who is a native Californian. Dialect coach Kim Brickley works with the 6th Street cast to help them soften pronunciation while avoiding a caricature of Southern speaking.
The other challenge may be working with children. Cote’ sees the child actors in this play performing with confidence and competence. Because the main children, Scout, Jem and Dill, have more lines and more scenes than Cote’ Atticus and all of the other players, they must be and are very good. For example, Cote’ notes, Mario Giani Herrera (from Rohnert Park), who plays Jem has been seen in many bay area productions and most notably and recently as Pugsley in Spreckels’ “The Adams Family: the Musical.” Ceceilia Brenner who plays Scout appeared in 6th Street Playhouse’s “Annie” last December. Maggie Ward (from Rohnert Park) has the huge task of preparing for the role of Scout as an understudy.
Cote’ stated that this version of the play draws upon the three major sections of the novel integrating each in a well-balanced manner. Just as the book develops the characters of the children and Atticus, Boo Radley and Bob Ewell, and the nature of the town, the play carefully establishes these personalities before plunging into the main conflicts. The central section of the drama involves the trial of Tom Robinson. The post-trial culminates with the redemption of Boo Radley.
All of this came to be through a careful, studied, and laborious work of love conducted by Director Marty Pistone. Cote’, a veteran of many and varied directors, went out of his way to credit Pistone. “There’s a lot of good heart behind this play. Director Marty Pistone’s approach is to really talk and understand the times. He brings a lot of heart, mindfulness and respect to this play.” Coming from Cote’, an actor with the highest work ethic, suggests that this version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” promises to be an unforgettable Sonoma County production.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” opens at 6th Street Playhouse Apr. 26, and it runs for nineteen performances through May 19th. The evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and the six matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at 6thstreetplayhouse.com or by calling the Box Office at (707) 523-4185 ext. 1.