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Portland actor Justin Mark returns to play Jem in Aaron Sorkin's stage version of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

PHOTO: JULIETA CERVANTES - Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's  "To Kill a Mockingbird" comes to the Keller Oct 18-23. (L-R) Justin Mark ("Jem Finch"), Richard Thomas ("Atticus Finch"), Melanie Moore ("Scout Finch") and Steven Lee Johnson ("Dill Harris").

To Kill a Mockingbird the stage play (Keller Auditorium, Oct. 18-23), is every bit as intense as the movie or the novel. Portland-raised actor Justin Mark plays Jem, the son of white savior lawyer Atticus Finch in the classic tale of selective injustice.

Mark has been touring for six months, playing eight shows a week in places like Schenectady, New York; Durham, North Carolina; and Washington, D.C. The play seems to have universal appeal.

"With the part that I play, we get to narrate to the audience," he told Pamplin Media Group. "We look them in the eye and talk to them, which is cool. The audiences have been all over the board. Every night is different."

In different places, they respond differently to the same lines.

"Sometimes there's a round of applause after a line where there's never been a round of applause. Or a laugh that we never thought was a laugh line. It feels like a living piece of theatre, in a way that every play should, but I don't think always is."

For example, the boy Jem Finch has a line when he feels he is about to be put in danger that goes, "It ain't gonna be the first line of my obit." Obit is short for obituary. Mark noticed that up north it went unremarked, but in the south, it gets a chuckle.

"That line is consistently getting a reaction because it's much more in tune with the accent down here," he said, speaking by phone from Nashville.

"A lot of the times, I don't even think the line is very funny. The character is feeling scared or whatever. And it's funny to be like, 'Oh, right, but that is kind of a funny line.'"

PHOTO: JULIETA CERVANTES - Richard Thomas (John-Boy from The Waltons) plays lawyer Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" which comes to the Keller Oct 18-23. Portlander Justin Mark ("Jem Finch") says Thomas is a consummate professional and a nice guy.

The book, the movie and the play

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is set in the south in the 1930s, in fictional Maycomb, Alabama. Local lawyer Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a Black man, called here a negro, from a rape accusation by a white woman, while schooling his daughter Scout and son Jem in the ways of empathy and justice.

The 1960 novel won author Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and went on to sell 40 million copies.

In 2018 "To Kill a Mockingbird" topped PBS's Great American Read survey of 4 million respondents as the favorite novel in English, chosen from a list of 100. It pipped Diana Gabaldon's Outlander and JK Rowling's Harry Potter series.

It's such a popular school text that no school board has yet successfully banned it for highlighting systemic racism. However, in 2022 in Seattle, the Mukilteo School Board did vote to pull it from a ninth grade reading list because it contains the N-word.

The play is Aaron Sorkin's 2018 adaptation and has done well on Broadway. Even if you only know "TKAM" from the 1962 movie and from YouTube clips, such as Gregory Peck's flaccid summing up, the story is an American classic, pop culture touchstone and history lesson all in one.

Another line, "Nobody ever calls on the phone after 7 p.m." also tickles the actor, Mark. "This was like back in the '30s, and there were a couple of chuckles out in the audience. And I was like, 'Why is that funny? Oh, they must have some sort of an understanding that perhaps their grandparents never answered the phone or never called after seven.' It feels like people are constantly having a reaction that's very personal to them. Because I think everybody has a relationship to this story, whether they know the actual book, or they know even just the general plot."

Mark adds that there are "some heavy-hitting lines that usually always get a response. Partly because we've got a great group of actors who can really do them justice; plus, we have a great writer Aaron Sorkin, who's written an epic version of this story where the characters are deeply communicative. Like all of Aaron Sorkin's work, the characters are normally very smart and can express themselves in ways sometimes we in real life can't."

A lot of dad Atticus's and housekeeper Calpurnia's lines hit hard. "Those actors are Richard Thomas (who started out as John-Boy on The Waltons) and Jacqueline Williams ("The Young Man from Atlanta," "From the Mississippi Delta," and "The Talented Tenth"), and they are just beautiful to be on stage with, and beautiful for the audience to watch, because they consistently land their dialogue."

PHOTO: JULIETA CERVANTES - Scout, Dill and Jem visit Boo Radley in Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" which comes to the Keller Oct 18-23.

Two sides

It's a book of two halves. The first is about southern social structures and customs, the second about racial justice.

"The first act and the second act to kind of feel like two different plays, the town and then the courtroom. It's beautifully structured that way, where the audience really gets into the town to become sort of a citizen of Macomb, so it feels like the audience's in the courtroom with the jurors."

In another intense play that takes people beyond good and evil, Mark this year played a 16-year-old Nazi German soldier in "This Beautiful Future" at the height of Omicron in New York City.

"I think the most people that could fit in the audience were like, 40 people. It was beautiful. It was very intimate, a four-person play. I think you were watching someone whom we historically despise, go through a beautiful moment of their life, watch a person fall in love so beautifully."

The play "This Beautiful Future" takes place in real time over one night in France, just before his character finds out that the Germans have lost World War II.

He likes the small theater companies of Portland. "That's the Portland vibe, isn't it? You're doing your thing, not so people can talk about it, but just so you can do it. I admire that."

Mark went to Beaverton High School, "But I had a Portland address," he quickly adds.

As a Portlander, how did deal with the Alabama accent?

"We had a really great voice coach, who was actually my teacher in college at Juilliard, Kate Wilson," he says. "The southern accent is very relaxed, and if there's one thing that the Pacific Northwest vibe is known for, it's being relaxed. So, that was kind of easy. And Aaron Sorkin's writing is written to be spoken in the accent. He did a very good job at honoring the flow of thought for southern people. So, his lines are very long, and the rhythms of thoughts are embedded into his choice of words."

He explains, "If you just really relax and speak all the way to the end of the line, it kind of plays itself." The actors all have different southern accents because of their ages spread. "It feels like a musical sometimes, because we're like a little, vocal orchestra of actors."

He said the director didn't tell the younger actors how to play a kid.

"Me and Melanie Moore (Scout) and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill) are obviously not kids, but t we're portraying children looking back on this time in their life, on a stage, right now. The audience buys into the theatrical experience of it. That's why I think it's such a good play. It's not the movie, it's not the book, but it's this living, breathing play that these three kids are conjuring up for one evening, right now."

Vice-president

Working with the storied actor Richard Thomas is a blast.

"He's the nicest guy ever. He's an old pro, but he's also playing an old pro (the lawyer Atticus). I've never done a play at this level before and I'm playing his son, who looks up to him. So, there's this art imitates life thing going on, where I think my natural admiration for Richard Thomas is coming across in our portrayal of Jem and Atticus."

Thomas is brilliant at sticking to the script, yet making the performance feel fresh and new every night.

Mark also says Thomas is optimistic on stage and off, and that gives him a light that makes the character, and the story, believable, even though it all comes crashing down.

"If Atticus had any doubt at all, or if he was cynical at all, or if he if he didn't full-heartedly enter into the undertaking of defending Tom Robinson, I don't think the audience would go with him on the journey. When we were in Washington, D.C., the Vice President, Kamala Harris, came to see our show at the Kennedy Center, and she came backstage. And it was really cool. She was just like, you know, 'Change takes time. And it always has and always will.' And that even though you fight, and you sometimes lose, it's all part of inching toward what we see.

"I think what Atticus sees, on the on the other side, that that can't happen in a day. But it can slowly, slowly happen."


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