Bird on a Wire
By Robert Kreutzer
The story was published in 1960, it’s set in the 1930s, but for Terre Gunkel, To Kill a Mockingbird screams “today.”
Gunkel is the director of the stage rendition of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. The production at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga runs through this Sunday. Gunkel recalled reading it many years ago and said time has done little to diminish his love for the book.
“I read it in the 9th grade, and I was so moved and so shocked by the story,” says Gunkel. “Here it is, so many years later, and I look back at when the story was set, and I see we’ve come a long way, that the issues in the story have not gone away. I also see we have a long way to go as far as treating people with dignity and not assuming all individuals in a group are the same.”
For the three of you that escaped the assignment in high school, the story is set in Alabama. It tells of lawyer Atticus Finch, a righteous white Southerner put in the difficult position of defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Also central to the story are the viewpoints of Finch’s children, as they intellectually and morally come of age in their segregated town.
“I really love what this story has to say,” explains Gunkel. “Its message is for children and parents, that is that the most important thing to get kids to do is to look at what other people do—and what their motivations might be for doing it.”
The novel was adapted into a 1962 motion picture that earned Gregory Peck an Oscar for Best Actor. In 1990, the story was brought to the stage courtesy of playwright Christopher Sergel. While saying he didn’t think the play was perfect, Gunkel nonetheless gave kudos to Sergel’s version of the story.
“The book is deep and it’s complicated because of so many subplots,” Gunkel says. “The playwright did a great job of getting to the central plot. Some of the things that couldn’t be explicitly stated are at least hinted at.”
Beloved as the play is, it does present challenges for a director. For one, there are a lot of roles to balance, something that sometimes presents a special test for the theater.
“The book is full of distinctive characters, and I think we’ve done a good job of putting them on stage with both very experienced veterans and new actors. The plus for community theater is that it has so many roles, and the minus is that it has so many great roles. Sometimes finding people willing to take these roles is difficult because so many of them aren’t speaking that much.”
Gunkel praised the Lewis Theater as an excellent choice for the production.
“The nice thing with Lewis is that it has such an enormous stage,” Gunkel explains. “The sets are presentational, not literal, so you have to be able to give a sense of how the town moves. It would be very difficult to put this show on in most community stages, which tend to be smaller.”
The book and subsequent productions have generated some controversy. Given its setting, racial epithets are frequently used. Gunkel said he grappled with the idea of using the word—and ultimately decided it shouldn’t be airbrushed out.
“To be honest, I think it’s really important we use the word,” Gunkel explains. “We need to confront the racial hatred it represents, and if you make the play politically correct, you lose the awfulness of that period. We shouldn’t pretend it never existed—we should address why that word is so bad.”
To Kill a Mockingbird at Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 477-2752; www.lewisfamilyplayhouse.com. $16-$18. Nov. 16-18.