It’s hard to make something universal seem especially timely.
But, the Guthrie Theatre is about to do just that, when Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of the almighty classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, opens their 2015-2016 season on Sept. 18 (previews begin Sept. 12).
It seems less of a prescient choice than one might expect, given that the performances are dovetailed with a series of community conversations about the much-publicized sequel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which was unearthed and recently published, a literary archaeological find which has produced mixed feelings.
Still, it seems more than an apt time to bring Sergel’s adaptation back in a much-anticipated, full-scale handsome production, which is a hallmark of the famous Guthrie venue. They have a history of bringing the classics to the regional scene, and they’re no stranger to tackling the most celebrated of literary classics either (“The Great Gatsby,” which opened their new digs in 2006, comes immediately to mind).
Sergel’s work is something of a mixed blessing. The characters are all there, Scout, Jem, the stoic Atticus, but the theater work has always had such a lot to live up to. Not only is Lee’s novel near-perfect, focusing on racial injustice, innocence lost, and that threshold moment when we all realize in a brutal way that what society says and does isn’t as right and pure, let alone tolerant, as we’ve been led to believe, but the 1962 film is almost as equally venerated, with precise direction from Richard Mulligan, an unforgettably evocative score by Elmer Bernstein, a wholly-successful screenplay by Horton Foote, and the career-defining, unquestionably iconic, performance by Gregory Peck as the lawyer Atticus Finch.
Given that the novel is taught in almost every schoolroom in the country, it’s a lot for a play to live up to, and it’s bereft of the unique and ritualistic production elements the text gets in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. (which uses townspeople in the cast, selects a jury of men from its racially-segregated audiences at intermission, and sets the entire thing outside and inside the Monroe County Courthouse).
Still, Lee’s message about how we see each other, and our own past, is sure to pack an emotional wallop. And, given the opportunity to discuss divisions brought about by racial intolerance and social violence that the property occasions, that should be more than enough to make our collective hearts soar.