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Young Actress Puts Herself In Scout Finch's Shoes

This article is more than 12 years old.

BOSTON — This weekend Boston audiences will meet a locally grown Scout Finch in a new production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Scout, the sassy 6-year-old in author Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story, is one of the most curious, iconic young characters in literature and film.

Are we poor?

We are indeed.

Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?

No, not exactly. Cunninghams are country folk. Farmers. Crash hit them the hardest.

Actress Mary Badham played Scout in the Oscar-winning 1962 film with Gregory Peck. Her realistic portrayal is practically seared into our collective imaginations. Scout narrates the classic tale of life in a "tired old" Southern town that's grappling with conflicts over class and racial injustice.

Some of the young cast members in the new Boston production didn't necessarily expect they'd be struggling to understand those issues, too.

Hundreds of young actresses auditioned for the part of Scout in an open casting call last January. Some showed up wearing denim overalls and short-cropped haircuts. But Boston Children’s Theatre Director Burgess Clark was searching for a girl who could channel Scout’s inner qualities.

"It’s her innocence and it’s her honesty that is one of the parts of this character that is such fun to play, and why she offers such a unique perspective," Clark said. "Everyone else is afraid to even say what’s going on in town, [while] Scout's asking everyone that she encounters specific questions about the words she’s hearing and that’s what makes it so appealing."

Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, embraces Mary Badham, or Scout, in the 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird” film. (AP)
Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, embraces Mary Badham, or Scout, in the 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird” film. (AP)

Atticus, do you think Boo Radley ever really comes and looks in my windows every night? Jem says he does.

Scout, I told you and Jem to leave those poor people alone.

It’s a pretty grownup role for a young girl. The themes in the story are decidedly mature. But playing Scout is also really appealing, according to the girl who got the part.

"I love how she’s a tomboy and how she is very curious," said 11-year-old Tori Cargill, of Beverly Farms. "To prepare myself for that I just think — and put myself in her position — and put myself in her shoes and how she would act."

Which is exactly what Scout’s father would tell Scout to do. In the play, Boston actor Doug Bowen Flynn takes on the formidable role of lawyer Atticus Finch.

You never really understand somebody until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

You want us to consider things from Boo Radley’s point of view?

He means everyone.

You stay out of this.

Mr. Harris is right.

Mr. Harris — or Dill — is the precocious boy next door. He, Scout and Scout's older brother Jem are wildly curious — and confused — when Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The case divides the Depression-era community of Maycomb, Ala., and inflames the dramatic tensions in the play.

Cargill — a kid living in 2011 Massachusetts — admitted that Scout's shoes have been really hard for her to wear. The young actress recalled one scene in particular to illustrate her struggle.

"Scout is with Atticus and she’s asking him all these questions of what’s rape and does he defend negroes, so… I actually said the other word that they used to say back then in the South, and that made me very uncomfortable to say that word," she said. "I did not like saying that."

Badham sympathizes with Cargill's position, although times were, of course, very different back then.

"See I grew up with all of that because I grew up in Birmingham, Ala.," Badham explained on the phone from her home in Virginia. She was pretty much the same age as Tori Cargill when she played Scout in the 1962 film.

"It was a white man’s world, and women, children and servants were to be seen and not heard, and black people still rode on the back of the bus and drank from colored fountains and had their own restrooms when I was growing up and all that stuff," she recalled. "They couldn’t even look into a white restaurant without being disciplined or killed."

Badham said that’s why 50 years after it was written "To Kill a Mockingbird” must be read, taught and performed. It may shock young people today, but history is history, ‘N’ words included.

Cargill said living in Scout's world has indeed opened her eyes. Eleven-year-old Bryan Marden agrees. He’s playing Jem in the play.

"As I go more and more into the show and I go deeper and deeper, I really start to figure out it was worse than I thought," he told me. "I just thought that blacks were separated from whites and there was some unfairness going on, but now it’s putting a man’s life at stake. I really never put that together," he said, adding, "It’s much bigger than what I thought."

Clark said he's been wanting to stage "To Kill A Mockingbird" for 40 years. "This was the first grown-up film I ever witnessed as a child," he said, "my parents made me watch it." And Clark has always been grateful for it. "That’s why I think this story endures the way that it does," he mused. "You see justice through the eyes of a child."

As for Scout's lasting power to connect with us, Clark said she embodies a wonderful amalgamation "of appetite and curiosity and tolerance. She's so open to the world and many people have said that this book and these characters are what influences them in raising their families these days — these values." Then he added, "This book defined my generation, and I think it’s an important message to carry on."

Badham, the original Scout, agrees. She travels to cities everywhere talking about the messages in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Last year was very busy, she admits, with all of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's book. Badham said she also sees "Mockingbird" performed on stage as often as she can.

"Each little Scout is different as I watch the play in different parts of the country, and it’s fun to see how they lend their personalities and their little beings to the role," she said.

And yes, Mary Badham will be here in Boston this weekend to see Tori Cargill in her denim overalls and ham costume. The young Massachusetts actress admits she’s a little nervous for the show, but hopes to get some tips from the woman who first brought Scout to life.

This program aired on May 5, 2011.

Andrea Shea Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.



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