National Geographic : 2006 Jan
MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA in southwest Alabama, is Bible Belt country through and through. There are 7,000 people and 28 churches; heads bow in grace before meals, and the defining question is, "What church do you belong to?" But timber, cotton, and churches do not draw 30,000 visitors a year. Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbirddo. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, then became an Academy Award-winning movie with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in a town, not unlike, well, Monroeville. High season for Monroeville is May, when the Monroe County Her itage Museums puts on a stage version of Mockingbird. The event is a morality play of sorts, a migration of pilgrims paying homage to the pow erful sermon of the story. "People around here actually quote lines from the book like scripture," one man told me. The homegrown cast stars, among others, a forester, the owner of an air-conditioning company, a firefighter, several teachers, and a few law yers thrown in for good measure. "We always have a pastor play a role," said Carol Champion, who sells souvenirs between acts. "The one year we didn't was the year we got rained out." Carol's husband, police detective Robert Champion, plays Boo Radley, the neighbor whose reclusiveness captivates Scout and Jem, Atticus's chil dren. "Boo only has one line, so it's all played in body language," he told me. Tall, rangy Dennis Owens, who sells insurance, plays Atticus. "There is no way you can live up to the character of Atticus," he said, "but I like to think you have a few moments in time when you do." Charles McCorvey, a county commissioner, plays Tom Robinson, the Atticus (Dennis Owens) questions Mayella Ewell (Robin Scott), the woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape.