Dissection of a moment: Opening night with the Rep
Spontaneous applause opening night of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
A live full-cast stage feature consists of a great number of smaller moments all delicately interconnected. When it goes wrong, there are any number of reasons why it did. When it doesn’t there are just as many reasons why it worked. Occasionally there is a genuine moment that hits that reaffirms the entire reason for going tot the theatre in the first place. Such a moment happened “opening night” Friday at the Milwaukee Rep’s To Kill a Mockingbird last week. Spontaneous applause. The standing ovation at the end of the show always seems strange and discordant for me . . . one of those strange little mysteries like how “opening night” for a Rep show always happens a few evenings after the show actually opens. (Really, how much change is there from “preview” shows to opening night? I digress…)
There was a moment “opening night,” . . . Jonathan Gillard Daly in the role of Heck Tate discusses with Atticus (Lee Ernst) the fate of Boo Radley. Radley just did what Radley does at the end of Mockingbird and things could change for him pretty drastically. He walks offstage having said his piece about it and the audience erupts into applause. This isn’t exactly a moment that one might normally expect spontaneous applause. If anything, one would normally expect the applause to come right after the actual altercation between Radley and Bob (James DeVita.) Applause there was genuine, heartfelt and felt like a very sophisticated reaction on the part of the audience. It could’ve been all in my head, but I could swear I saw some satisfaction filtering in around the edges of the actors onstage—still very professional and in character and everything, but I could swear I noticed them getting some satisfaction in the fact that the audience had been that invested in the story to applaud Tate’s suggestion to Atticus.
The precise reason why the applause came in there and not right after the scuffle is interesting and I think it has a lot to do with hoe the ensemble managed the script (under the direction of Aaron Posner, of course.) First of all—DeVita puts in a very complex performance as a character who could’ve easily been played as a simple ignorant redneck villain. Seeing him actually attack and seeing what actually happened to him at the end of the scuffle wasn’t necessarily a moment of victory. It was brutal and it was stupid and it was tragic. And because DeVita’s villain wasn’t a classic villain, we don’t react to his comeuppance the way we normally might were he a more classic villain. Another factor here is the fact that Daly manages to exude authority in the role of Heck even as much of the moral authority of the play is invested in Atticus. Seeing Tate finally take a decisive action at the end is his character taking the reigns of order that he never really relinquishes throughout the play. The logic is so clear and concise that Atticus goes along with the decision and we see a very idealistic Atticus shift a bit if only for a moment . . . and the fact that Ernst had been as good as he’d been in acting as the moral compass of the play meant that his presence in that scene added to the audience’s reaction . . . even if he wasn’t necessarily saying anything at the time.
And then the rest of the play runs its course. And there’s the standard standing ovation. Bt that one moment with Daly onstage felt so much more real to me on opening night.