“To Kill a Mockingbird” Opens at Frostburg State University
Cast Reflects on Harper Lee's Passing, Significance of her Story
Just one week after “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89, the Frostburg State University Department of Theatre and Dance will open its production of the play based on Lee’s book.
“When somebody sent me that article [that Harper Lee died], I immediately cried,” said Dr. Jenn Goff, who is directing the play. “It was the fact that we’ve been living in her world that she created for the last several months, and we’ve really gotten close to it, and that was just such a shocking thing.”
During the cast’s rehearsal the night after Lee passed away, they took a moment to talk about and reflect on the importance of this story.
“We were excited to be telling her story to begin with and now we just sort of had a renewed sense of the importance and the responsibility we felt towards her,” Goff said.
When Josh Mooney, an FSU senior playing Atticus Finch, found out, he said “I actually stopped in my tracks going back to my apartment. It was like somebody pulled the rug out from under me.”
He continued, “I was deeply saddened. I grew up reading the book, so Harper Lee was always in my life and so, it was very sad. I was very taken aback by it.”
Maureen Groff, a senior playing Scout Finch, felt a personal connection to Lee. “It was hard to hear,” she said. “It was like losing a hero. In a sense, I’m playing her, and it kind of put even more pressure to do her proud, to tell her story, and to bring it to life.”
“There are people in society who you just kind of feel like are always going to be there and I think she was one of them,” said Dr. Goff. “It’s funny because really, until last year, she just had that one novel. But that one novel had such a profound effect on so many people over the years. And to be living in her world right now, when suddenly she left ours, was pretty shocking.”
Members of the cast commented that the play is quite timely, not only due to Lee’s passing, but due to ongoing national conversations regarding race relations and criminal justice.
“It’s one of the quintessential American stories about justice and fairness and race relations and I know the department was certainly conscious of that when they chose it,” Goff said. “There’s so many great lines in this. One of them is ‘Fair play isn’t marked white only.’ And the recognition that justice and fairness, those basic principles of humanity, let alone American society, should be available to everyone regardless of their background, their skin color, their race, their religion, their creed, and their sexuality.”
Andy Duncan, an associate professor in FSU’s Department of English and Foreign Laguages, portrays Judge Taylor in the play. Having lived in South Carolina, Duncan said he can relate to the story. Although he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, Duncan said, “my parents were depression kids. And all my aunts and uncles were depression kids. So, I heard so much about that time period that I felt growing up as if I had experienced it myself.”
“Certainly, all the race relations problems were very much an issue when I was growing up, and they still are everywhere, not just in the South,” he added. “Like Harper Lee, I am all too familiar with the particular deep south flavors of them.”
“I think it’s not as cozy a book as people view it,” said Duncan. “I think it is very prickly. I think there are a lot of purposeful problematic aspects and ambiguities that she leaves us to sort out the way society moves us to sort out.”
Mooney echoes Goff and Duncan, saying, “It’s an important role especially today, given everything that goes on in our country, all this racial discrimination.”
Playing Atticus, who serves as the strong moral compass in the story, has been a rewarding yet challenging experience for Mooney.
“It is terrifying,” he said. “It’s an honor to be playing this role and it’s truly a challenge but it’s something I’ve been up for. I grew up watching the film version with Gregory Peck as Atticus so every time I revisit that story in school in the books I always hear that low booming voice speaking to the jury and so the first thing that come to mind was ‘gotta at least to try something like that.”
Groff faces a similar challenge in playing Scout, a character Lee based in part on herself.
“I’ll admit going into it, I was a little nervous because, it’s got such a following around it,” she said. “It’s a big deal.”
To prepare for the role, Groff conducted a significant amount of research to help build her own personal vision of Scout.
“With any show I do, I don’t like to watch the movie,” she said. “I don’t like to watch performances. I like to make it my own story. I like to put myself in the situation and think about how I would react to these events because it’s more natural.”
As she went through her research, Groff found one photo that helped her envision the role.
“I collected a lot of pictures of little girls from the 30’s, and I wanted to put a face to who Scout was, and I found this really beautiful picture of this little girl,” Groff said. “She’s wearing overalls, and she had this little scarf on her head, and she had this this scowl like she was ready to beat someone up. And it was so perfect. She was my Scout.”
“I think that because I put myself in her shoes, in that picture, it really connected it for me,” she continued. “It’s just been a blast. It’s just been so much fun.”
Mooney and Groff have been perfect in their roles as Atticus and Scout, Goff said.
“It is so intimidating to play Atticus Finch and Scout Finch,” she said. “They’re the American roles. Those two are so fearless. They’re smart actors and they came in having done the homework. They’ve really taken on the challenge, and they understand the weight of putting on this story that everyone knows.”
Because of the story’s immense popularity, Goff says the cast is excited for the play, which so many have read and cherished.
“People read this book over and over again,” she said. “I think the cast is excited about that. It’s intimidating, really, but I think they’ve really embraced the challenge.”
It’s a story that transcends time and place, a story with a message that’s just as strong as it’s always been.
“I think it’s exciting to do this story not only at a university campus, where theoretically the whole thing we’re doing here is teaching people to be conscientious and to engage in their world in a thoughtful and intellectual and empathetic way but I think this play fits very well into the Frostburg atmosphere and world,” Goff said. “It’s not only a great story for this time in history but I think it’s a really nice one for this community as well.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” will run Friday and Saturday, Feb. 26 and 27, and Thursday through Saturday, March 3 to 5, at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee on Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. All performances will take place in the Performing Arts Center Drama Theatre.