Director Liz Bradley says taking on To Kill a Mockingbird was ''a bit of a challenge''. Christopher Sergel's theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has to compete with the popularity of both the book and the 1962 film version, starring Gregory Peck.
''People come with expectations,'' Bradley says, but she and her cast and crew can only do the best they can in this Free-Rain Theatre Company production, focusing on the story and the characters to present their own version of the well-loved tale.
But the story is essentially the same in all versions, and Bradley thinks there's plenty to appeal in this Mockingbird.
''It's a play about people,'' she says - people with their own problems and dilemmas and prejudices and challenges.
''And it's a lovely story, a very fine story, a very popular story.''
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression of the 1930s. Widowed lawyer Atticus Finch (played by Colin Boldra) is raising his two children, Scout (Maddison Smith-Catlin) and Jem (Martin Hoggart) and has taken on the defence of a black man, Tom Robinson (David Kinyua), accused of raping a white woman. It's a case that will have a dramatic effect on their family and the town.
Although it's set in the past and in another country, Bradley thinks To Kill a Mockingbird still has a lot to offer a modern Australian audience. Although everyone in Maycomb is poor, there are still social stratifications based on background and education - ''that distinction is still the same now'' - and there is still racism, even if the specific targets may be different.
Boldra's previous roles have included Basil Fawlty in a stage version of Fawlty Towers, a very different character to Atticus Finch. Boldra is in his early 40s, several years younger and considerably more physically vigorous than Atticus, which he's finding a challenge. He's struck by Atticus's integrity and the powerful effect he has on the other characters in the play.
''He's having a powerful effect on me as well,'' he says.
Not that Boldra is without integrity of his own - as the father of two young daughters, he only does one show a year so as not to spend too much time away from them - and he points out that although Atticus is sometimes held up as a model father, he could be regarded as a somewhat fallible parent, frequently absent on business matters and also having what might sometimes be regarded as excessively high expectations of his children, encouraging them to try to see things from other people's points of view when perhaps they might struggle with the concept.
But he doesn't want to overstate Atticus's failings - ''he's a good parent'' - or to suggest that he's anything but a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, even if he only read the book for the first time recently. Boldra says he is ''honoured'' to be playing the role in a play that deals with issues such as racism, about which he feels strongly.
Smith-Catlin, 14, says she's nothing like the cheeky, tomboyish Scout - ''I'm very girly'' - and is finding the role a challenge, albeit an enjoyable one. She is already a seasoned actress, her credits including the recent professional production of Annie in Sydney and The Ides of March in the Courtyard Studio last year.
Hoggart, who's acted with Canberra Youth Theatre for the past few years, describes Jem as ''a moody teenager'', torn between trying to live up to his father's high expectations and principled conduct and wanting to feel accepted in the town. ''Over the course of the play he learns to accept Atticus and what he does,'' he says. He thinks the book, while ''a timeless classic'', might not be quite as relevant now as it used to be, institutionalised racism not being as common as it once was in countries like the US, although the anti-racist message, obviously, is still timely.
For him, it's another of the story's themes, that of the loss of innocence experienced by the Finch siblings and their friend Dill (Ben Burgess) that resonates more strongly. This is especially the case for Scout, the youngest of the three, he says. ''It's told from the perspective of Scout and throughout the course of the play she discovers everything is not exactly what she thought it was.''
And Dill is illustrative of another issue the story raises. While Atticus may sometimes be a little formal and not always around, he still loves his children. Dill's parents do not like him at all, and he is much happier being with the Finches. His experiences make him prematurely cynical: Burgess quotes him as saying, ''I'm little, but I'm old.'' And some of the experiences he has with Jem and Scout do nothing to make him any less wary of the adult world.
To Kill a Mockingbird - whether as book, film or play - has endured for its drama, its poignancy and its ultimate message of hope and the cast and crew are looking forward to presenting it to the Canberra public in this production.
■ To Kill a Mockingbird is on at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre on October 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 and November 1, 2, 3 at 8pm with a 5pm show on October 28 and 2pm shows on November 3 and 4. Tickets $35 full, $30 concessions, $28 matinees and twilight shows. Ph: 6275 2700.