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Elliott’s performance riveting in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

SALISBURY — Go see Piedmont Players’ production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for this reason: To see Joe Elliott’s performance as accused rapist Tom Robinson.
The emotion he pours into those few minutes kept the opening night audience completely quiet. There was not a cough, not a breath taken during his testimony. Those moments are worth the price of admission.
The play runs just over two hours, with a 20-minute intermission. The first act, at 50 minutes, was subdued, a bit dull. The second act more than makes up for it as the trial unfolds and tension and danger mount.
The story should be familiar — your might have seen the 1962 movie — you probably read the Harper Lee novel in school. Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, against a charge of rape brought by a young white woman. People in their small town feel pretty strongly about racial issues — and they’re pretty sure Atticus is on the wrong side. Atticus not only has to defend his client, but his deeply held beliefs of what makes us human.
Another standout is Catherine Harp as Maude Atkinson, neighbor to Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem. She is the play’s narrator, and with the smooth voice of a real Southern woman, she tells the parts of the story that don’t appear on stage.
Much credit should also go to Stuart Jonap, as Atticus. It’s impossible to be Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the movie, so Jonap is his own man, still with a steadiness and stillness that calms the heated air of the racist 1935 South.
Sara Beth Richard plays Scout with fire, although once in a while, she’s a little hard to understand. Garett Alewine is the hot-tempered Jem, who learns a number of important lessons thanks to his father’s wisdom.
It’s nice to see Nick Veros as Dill, who befriends Jem and Scout and offers his own wisdom. He has a sort of somberness that’s right for Dill. The children know their parts well; the audience would benefit if they spoke a little slower. But they certainly carry much of the play.
Lisa McDonald is the shrewish Stephanie, Dill’s aunt, who feels the need to point out everyone’s flaws.
Neal Brower does a fine job as Heck Tate, the worn-out sheriff who’s seen too much and feels powerless to change the ways of the people he protects, or tries to protect.
Edward Whitney is the malevolent Bob Ewell, obscenity-spewing father of the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell. Whitney puts on a truly frightening demeanor, a hot, hard stare, a red face, a trembling body, filled with anger. To see him smile during the curtain call almost feels like a trick. Arisa McDonald plays the barely literate Mayella, head down, hair stringy, her body the picture of abuse and toil.
Former county commissioner Gus Andrews seems right at home as Judge Taylor, who struggles during the trial to keep things civil. He has to contend with the snide Mr. Gilmer, for the state, played with a sneer by Steven Cobb.
There are other characters who may have smaller parts, but great presence. Among them is Natasha Wall as Calpurnia, the Finches’ housekeeper, and Russell Johnson as Reverend Sykes, whose deep voice and sense of veritas lends an air of honor to the dishonorable proceedings.
Longtime Piedmont fan, actress and board member Kim Fink gets her turn as the scowling, scolding Mrs. Dubose, who offers Jem yet another lesson in life.
Director Reid Leonard has created a serious, noteworthy production, and a set and lighting design that bring to mind the dirt streets and run down houses of the town. You will feel as if you’re looking out the window at your neighbors.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” underwritten by Ketner and Dees, P.A., and MedExpress Pharmacy, continues tonight and Saturday and Feb. 13-16 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Feb. 10. Tickets are available at the Meroney Theater box office or by calling 704-633-5471.

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