Next to the Bible, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is considered one of the most popular books ever written. Published by author Harper Lee in 1960, it remains, to this day, a classic in American literature.

The novel takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., which bears a marked resemblance to the actual town of Monroeville, Ala., where Harper Lee was born and raised.

Over the decades, little Monroeville has become a popular destination for book lovers, affectionately referred to as “mockingbird groupies” by local residents.

In 1991, the townspeople gave tourists even more reason to visit by performing a stage adaptation of the famous book.

That performance was such a hit that it has become an annual spring event in Monroeville, performed by amateur actors known as the Mockingbird Players.

Lynn Rice of Anniston has always wanted to see that production. As a long-time board member of our local community theater — CAST — Lynn values the importance of supporting local arts. “Seeing the ‘Mockingbird’ play was on my bucket list,” she said.

After a lunch meeting with Emily Duncan, from our local chamber of commerce, Lynn was made an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Emily and a friend had traveled to Monroeville to see the play, but arrived late and missed a good bit of it. They were given comp tickets to come back another time, but weren’t anxious to make the four-hour drive again so soon. Emily offered those tickets to Lynn, who was delighted to accept.

Last month, Lynn and her husband, Charlie Rice, hopped in their car and made their way to Monroeville. Following directions, they turned off of Interstate 65 well south of Montgomery and onto a state highway. “And drove forever,” Charlie said. “It’s the kind of stretch where if you have a blowout, you might die because AAA can’t find you.”

Eventually, however, the road widened and, before their eyes, the quaint Southern town of Monroeville appeared. They found a parking spot directly in front of the old courthouse on the town square. “It was like we were in Mayberry,” Lynn said.

The first act of the play was performed out of doors, behind that old courthouse, where the open-air theater set featured a series of specially constructed stage homes. One of the homes belonged to Atticus Finch and another to Boo Radley.

Chairs were set up theater-style, and as Lynn and Charlie made their way to their seats for the first act to begin, a “casting director” approached them. “He asked if Charlie would be a member of the jury during the second act,” Lynn said.

Charlie agreed to perform his civic duty and was told to meet with the other jurors for instructions during intermission.

When the play began, the actors made their entrance from the faux homes to converse with each other and set the play in motion.

The actress portraying neighbor Maudie Atkinson also served as the narrator. “She’d break that fourth wall and address those of us in the audience,” Lynn said. “She clarified things for us.”

After intermission, the second act was performed inside the courthouse, which is no longer used as a courthouse. The historical structure has been preserved, renovated and turned into a museum.

While Lynn took a seat in the spectator section, Charlie was seated in the jury box. Being an attorney himself, he thoroughly enjoyed the action that was taking place in front of him. “Some of the questions wouldn’t have been allowed in a real court of law,” he said. But he understood that in a courtroom drama like that that one, the action had to be moved along.

“For that reason, I was willing to suspend belief,” he said.

At the close of the production, the cast took their bows and then mingled with the patrons. Lynn enjoyed chatting with the actors who played Atticus Finch and defendant Tom Robinson. The man playing Tom joked that he almost went backstage when the jury was supposed to be out deliberating. “I was going to mess with them and beg them not to convict me,” he told Lynn.

He wasn’t the only one wanting to have a little fun. According to Charlie, the jury had cooked up their only little gag. When they reconvened, they handed over a slip of paper containing the words “not guilty.” The bailiff passed it along to the judge, who unfolded it and looked at the verdict. He stayed true to script and character, however, ignoring the joke and announcing the defendant to be guilty — just as Harper Lee wrote it some six decades ago.

For anyone interested in traveling to Monroeville to see this play, dates have already been set for next April and May, but tickets won’t go on sale until after the first of the year.

For more information, visit www.tokillamockingbird.com/the-play.

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at donnabarton@cableone.net.

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