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Actor says ‘Mockingbird’ author was courageous

Actor says ‘Mockingbird’ author was courageous

Classic Theater Guild production to open at Proctors' Fenimore Gallery
Actor says ‘Mockingbird’ author was courageous
John Birchler is Atticus and Harper Donnelly plays Scout in the Classic Theater Guild production of “To Kill a Mockingbird."
Photographer: Peggi Perrone

Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck, was selected as the American Film Institute’s No. 1 “hero” back in 2003, and John Birchler doesn’t have a problem with that. He just wants people to remember who really created the character.

“It was a wonderful performance, worthy of the Oscar that he got, but I gotta tell you when Harper Lee wrote the book, it was an incredibly brave thing to do,” said Birchler, who will play Atticus in the Classic Theater Guild’s production of the stage version of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1961 opening Friday in Proctors’ Fenimore Gallery.

 “She wrote it before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, before Civil Rights was etched into our consciousness, and she wrote it in Alabama. I hate to use clichés, but Atticus is about truth and justice, the American way. That’s the character she created, and it certainly didn’t hurt the Civil Rights Movement when her book came out when it did.”

Seen through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, Lee’s story is set in the Deep South in the 1930s against the backdrop of a black man unjustly charged with the rape of a white woman. It is Scout’s father, Atticus, who is appointed by the town judge to be the defendant’s lawyer.

While Hollywood had already turned Harper’s book into a movie by 1962, it was Christopher Sergel who wrote the first published stage version in 1970. It wasn’t until 20 years later, however, that Sergel’s play had its first major production in 1990 at the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey.

Birchler, a former English teacher at Guilderland and a Scotia resident, is probably better known these days as a musician, but for this performance he will be putting away his guitar and singing voice.

“I saw the audition notice and thought how there are a lot of good male parts in that show,” he remembered. “I said, ‘what the heck, I’ll go see if I can get a part.’ When it looked like I was going to be cast as Atticus, I went out and found a DVD and watched it, once. Well, I can’t be Gregory Peck, but I figured I could still find a way to be Atticus Finch, at least another Harper Lee version of the character.”

Glenn Read is directing the show, while also in the cast are Aileem Penn as Tom Robinson, John Reheuser as Judge Taylor and Steve Barkley as Bob Ewell.

Harper Donnelly, a fifth-grader at Glenmont Elementary School in the Bethlehem Central district, is playing Scout, and Robbie Titsworth, a fifth-grader at Hillside Elementary in Niskayuna, is Jem. Their friend Dill is played by Andy Sanchez Jr., a fifth grader at Duanesburg Elementary School.

“I haven’t been on stage with kids for quite a long time,” said Birchler. “But it’s been fun and these three are all hard workers.”

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

WHERE: Fenimore Gallery, Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. March 9-11; 2 p.m. March 12
HOW MUCH: $20-$18
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected].

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