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Dill (Rhett Waller) and Scout (Maddie Groh) converse during "To Kill a Mockingbird." Young actors Jayden Jech and Calli Hughes also star in these roles.

Phoenix stages a classic

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The experience of performing in Phoenix Theatre's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is dramatically different, depending on the actor's age and background.

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For adult actors with real-life knowledge of the civil rights movement, it's an opportunity to pay homage to what they consider one of the finest books ever written.

For a young black man, it's a chance to remind people how devastating and unfair racial prejudice can be.

For children of the 21st century, it's a means to discover what it might have been like growing up during the Great Depression, including the way black people were treated.

"This is the most important role that I've ever played," said Jeff Chalmers, who has appeared in numerous Phoenix Theatre and Soap Box Players productions.

Chalmers is cast as Atticus Finch in the production, which opens March 15 for a four-day run at the Sheldon Theatre. Finch is a middle-aged attorney in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression. A man of great integrity, Finch agrees to defend a black man who has been framed for a crime he did not commit.

"I want to do justice for what this part means to me," Chalmers said. "It's the first book I loved."

He first read Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as a ninth grader, in the late 1970s, but didn't see the Academy Award-winning movie version starring Gregory Peck until many years later.

Chalmers' interpretation of Atticus Finch is his own.

"A lot of father images come to mind," he said. "He exemplifies the man I want to be."

The story is meaningful yet today, Chalmers stressed.

"One of the lines I remember from the play," he said, "is 'You never really know a person until you consider things from his point of view.' That's a timeless idea -- to climb inside another person's skin" so you can understand and get along with anyone.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" addresses the issue of "how unfair people can be to each other," he said, explaining that Tom Robinson is unfairly accused but can't get out of it because of the color of his skin.

"That's very real in our history. It needs to be retold," Chalmers said.

Chalmers and Tim Bowes, cast as the white man who accuses Robinson of raping his daughter, both are Red Wing High School teachers. They expect to see a lot of students in the audience, as the book is part of the school curriculum.

In addition, the character Arthur Radley, known as "Boo," is played by Twin Bluff Middle School Principal Chris Palmatier.

"I taught the book probably a dozen times" when he was an English teacher in Lake City and Woodbury before coming to Red Wing.

"'To Kill a Mockingbird' is probably my favorite book," Palmatier said. That's the main reason he tried out for the cast, though he's never before been in a play.

As Boo, "I'm pretty much the creepiest character in American literature," he pointed out. But at the same time, Palmatier knows a lot about his character. "He's a recluse, uncomfortable in crowds. Deep down, he's a good guy. ...

"My biggest regret doing the play is that I can't watch it."

Joshua Carlson has plenty of acting experience, but this will be his debut on the local stage. He lives in Burnsville, Minn., and attended a drama academy there for two years while in high school.

Director Julie Martin recruited Carlson, who is "almost 20," to play Tom Robinson after she saw him perform the role of Judd in "Oklahoma" in Hastings.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is required reading in Burnsville, too, he said. "I read it about five times -- the book and the script," but he will not watch the movie until after the run of the play because he wants to create his own characterization of the black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl.

"I always thought of him as a gentle man, a strong black man, a big old gentle spirit," Carlson said. "I did not think of him as dumb. He knew to say the right things."

But at the same time, "He really didn't know why this even was going on. He was trying to help a young lady, and now this happened."

His character is confused, Carlson said, and knows he's in big trouble, "but he also knows he is completely innocent." Fear comes from realizing that no one hears what he is trying to say.

Carlson, who was adopted by white parents, said he grew up thinking the word "Nigger" is "really bad to say." But as he grew older, he came to realize "It really just means black -- in the context of the play" and at that time in American history.

"What is wrong is the way he was treated. It's kind of hard to comprehend," he said. "It's so unfair."

The play is still relevant, Carlson believes. Recalling Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream for America, he said, "We're not quite there yet. There's still racism and prejudice."

He hopes people who see the play will realize "how awful it is" to discriminate against a person based on color. He hopes they'll leave the theater "accepting everybody for who they are and what color they are. It's very important that we can just love each other."

Young actors learn about right, wrong

It's one thing to learn about American history in school; another to learn about some difficult chapters in the nation's story by being part of telling that story.

Five children play key roles in "To Kill a Mockingbird," which will be staged at the Sheldon Theatre March 15-18. Two characters are double-cast.

The child who is a catalyst for much that happens in the play is a little girl named Jean Louise, but known as Scout. She and her brother Jem are children of attorney Atticus Finch, a widower. Her best friend is Charles Baker Harris, known as Dill.

Scout will be played by Calli Hughes on March 15 and 17, and by Madeline Groh on March 16 and 18.

A seventh-grader at Twin Bluff Middle School, Calli is the daughter of Shannan and Everett Hughes.

She's seen the movie version, Calli said, and has learned about racial prejudice in American history in school. She will draw on her experience in Arts Alive and Sheldon School for the Performing Arts productions.

Calli identifies with her character.

"Scout is curious, and always out there asking whatever comes to mind. She's curious about life," she said. "I kind of do the same as her -- say what's on my mind."

Society was very different during the Depression years in which the play is set, she noted. "Life was harder. I'm trying to act that out. How would I feel if it was back then?"

Madeline appeared in Arts Alive shows at the Sheldon, but this is her debut in a play and she's enjoying making friends of other cast members. A fourth-grader at Burnside School, she is the daughter of Toni Karger and Steve Groh.

"I heard it was a really good book -- I'm reading it now," she said.

Madeline sees Scout as a tomboy. "She isn't girly at all. She's always up in people's faces, and she always wants to know what's happening," she said. "She's kind of funny."

The play probably will make people think, Madeline believes. "It kind of lets you know about what happened in the Great Depression, and it lets you know that they treated black people unfairly back then."

She's not comfortable using the word "Nigger" on stage, Madeline admitted. "My dad said I could say it in the play only, for acting."

Foster Johnson will play Jeremy "Jem" Finch all four dates. The Red Wing High School eighth-grader has been in many plays -- including "The Wedding Singer" -- and has taken acting classes, so he's pretty comfortable on stage.

He wasn't familiar with "To Kill a Mockingbird," but has watched the movie now. "It's really good -- the story of it. It was a lot different."

Foster sees his character as "a guy going through puberty and being awed about all the bad things that are happening in the world."

Jayden Jech will play Dill March 15 and 17, while Rhett Waller has the role March 16 and 18.

Jayden, 11-year-old son of Jackie and Jason Jech, attends the Sheldon School and has been in numerous shows, including "Fiddler on the Roof."

"It's a wonderful play. I think people will learn a lot about how African-Americans were treated. I know I have," he said.

Rhett, a 12-year-old sixth-grader and son of Rodd and Michelle Waller, played Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol" and also appeared in other shows.

He identifies a bit with the character Dill.

"I think he's pretty nerdy. He's very adventurous," Rhett explained. Dill doesn't have a very good home life, though, which makes him both emotional and mature for his age.

"I recently finished the book," Rhett noted. "It's a very good story. It's very sad. It gives a good message. ... It's about right and wrong."

If you go...

Who: Phoenix Theatre

What: "To Kill a Mockingbird"

When: 7 p.m. March 15-17, 2 p.m. March 18

Where: Sheldon Theatre, 443 W. Third St.

Cost: $18 adults, $11 students, plus fees

More information: www.sheldontheatre.org

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