"I've heard of a city called Heaven. I've started to make it my home." A solitary voice from the balcony of this old courthouse sings the spiritual's haunting verse. We hear it, but our eyes hold Tom Robinson, a man we know is innocent, as he exits convicted. It is 1935, we are in Maycomb, Alabama, and for an evening, we are part of one of the most enduring stories of all time.
Harper Lee's Hometown
This marks the 14th year that the Old Monroe County Courthouse in Monroeville has hosted the production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Adapted from the novel by the town's most famous daughter, Nelle Harper Lee, the play follows the story of Atticus, Scout, Boo Radley, and other characters.
The entire first act takes place outside on the lawn of the courthouse, the action centered on the street where the Finches live. By 7 p.m., the sun sets behind the audience, casting a warm glow on the small set. No doubt these are volunteers-turned-amateur actors. You'll likely notice the occasional flubbed line or missed cue. But you'll also discern a spirit surely inspired by performing this timeless classic in the town where it was born and where Harper Lee's father practiced law.
Become Part of the Trial
You first hear the choir at intermission as you file into the courtroom for the second act. "I love the rich acoustics in this courthouse," says Jackie Nettles, director of the Monroe County Interdenominational Mass Choir. Their a cappella renditions of hymns and spirituals set the mood and move the show from scene to scene.
Sitting in the courtroom we become part of the story, witnessing Tom's trial and learning of his fatal failure to escape from prison. "This production is emotional," says director Kathy McCoy. "It portrays what these people were feeling in 1935, and that includes hate, fear, and love."
At play's end, I stand surrounded by other pensive faces, and I realize I can't leave just yet. As I finally walk away, I remember Atticus's words, "You never really understand a person...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." They have echoed in my mind since reading them as a teenager. This night they come to life. Fragrant magnolias anchoring the square fill my senses, reminding me that while To Kill a Mockingbird speaks a universal truth, its tone remains completely Southern.
To Kill a Mockingbird: (251) 575-7433 or www.tokillamockingbird.com. Dates: May 5-9, 12, 14-16, 19-22.
This article is from the May 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.