This weekend, Harlequin Productions opens a Christopher Sergel adaptation of the Harper Lee classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the company’s timing is uncanny.
Of that, “Black Lives Matter,” heroic lawyer Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout would certainly agree. And that not everyone does value black lives is a fact that hasn’t changed since the novel was published in 1960.
But Linda Whitney, the company’s artistic director, decided to direct “Mockingbird” a year and a half ago — before America at large became painfully aware of the number of police killings of black men, before the news hit home when an officer here shot two young black men and before HarperCollins announced the release of Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”
“I didn’t choose the play as a soapbox,” Whitney said. “It’s simply a wonderful story.”
She had wanted to direct “Mockingbird” for a while, she said, and wound up waiting to avoid getting lost in a crowd of productions timed with the book’s 50th anniversary in 2010.
Whitney said she was inspired by her admiration for the character of Finch (played by Aaron Lamb of Seattle), a lawyer in 1930s Alabama who chooses to defend a black man accused of rape.
“Currently, we have no heroes,” she said. “Actual strength of character and commitment to a moral position seem to have flown out the window. Atticus Finch walks into a situation he knows he can’t win, but he knows that it is important to do that job anyway.
“He’s going in and defending a man that he knows is innocent, but that he also knows is doomed. He is making that stand even though a great portion of the community has turned against him.”
She also chose this season for the play because she found an actress to play the demanding role of 6-year-old Scout. Loren Kattenbraker, 8, of Chehalis, was in the cast 2013’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and the director thought the soon-to-be third-grader would be perfect to play the role of the energetic and intelligent Scout.
“It’s a great opportunity for young actors to get the really juicy roles,” she said. Scout is on stage for almost the entire performance, and her brother Jem (played by Nick Hayes, 12, of Olympia, who’s entering the seventh grade) has a substantial role, too.
Whitney said she had no desire to make a political statement with the show.
“We’re doing a piece of art,” she said. “Our job is to present the play and tell the story.
“We’re not entering into a political conversation,” she added. “I’m more interested in getting people talking amongst themselves.”
Wanting to make space for a broader conversation, the company’s board invited Reiko Callner, an attorney and activist, to facilitate a conversation about issues raised by the show and about current events. Callner is a founding member of Olympia Unity in the Community, which is dedicated to educating and to organizing responses to the presence of hate groups in the area.
She said she’s excited about the conversation, both personally and because it could be a wonderful opportunity for healing.
“As tough as it has been having Olympia be the site of such attention, the ingredients might be here for a real sea change in attitude,” she said. “This is a rich confluence of literature and history, and the kind of community that feels very self-empowered and acts on its convictions.
“This conversation is an important one,” she added, “and it needs to be richly informed in context. We aren’t the first ones in history that this has happened to.”
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
What: Harlequin Productions is staging Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel about race and injustice in the 1930s South.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (Aug. 21) and Saturday, plus Wednesday-Aug. 29, Sept. 3-5 and Sept. 10-12, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday, as well as Aug. 30 and Sept. 6.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: $32, $29 for military and seniors, $20 for students and those 24 and younger. Discounted rush tickets are available a half-hour prior to curtain. For Wednesday’s performance, pay what you can.
Forum: Attorney and activist Reiko Callner will facilitate a discussion, open to anyone with tickets to any performance of the show, after the Sept. 6 performance.
Caution: Both Lee’s novel and Sergel’s adaptation use racially charged language common in the 1930s.
Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org.