MONROEVILLE, Ala. -- The play unfolded here Friday at the Old Monroe County Courthouse pretty much as it has for the past 27 years. Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson. The gospel choir sang. Scout used a slingshot to keep the boys in line and her curiosity to pose tough questions.
But much about this stage production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and life in this small town, where it has long been an economic and civic anchor, is a bit different this year.
Harper Lee, the author who first gave life to the story and became this town's most famous resident, died in February. The play, which is an adaptation of her novel, is being produced this spring for the first time by a nonprofit she created, not the local museum that had relied on it for revenue.
A few actors from the all-volunteer cast have quit, in part, they say, because the Monroe County Heritage Museum is no longer the chief beneficiary of the production.
"I don't have drama in my personal life," said one actor, Alan Smith, who took part in the production for three years, "and I don't want it in my relationship with the community." Lee never attended the play, and her decision to take back control of the production is viewed by many here as residue from a trademark fight she had with the museum several years ago. She sued the museum in 2013 because, among other things, she thought some items it sold, such as "Mockingbird" mugs, traded on the reputation of her novel. The museum fought back, but in a settlement agreed to pay royalties and to regular audits of its gift shop. It later sent a letter of apology.
Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, has denied that the author had any role in stripping the museum of the play. In an email last year to the museum's board president, she said that decision had rested with the company that licenses the stage adaptation -- and she did not think she could stop it.
But Christopher Sergel III, the president of that company, Dramatic Publishing, said in an interview last week that he only pulled the license as a courtesy to Lee. He said one of Lee's representatives had called him a few years back and told him she did not like the museum's production.
"I was told Harper Lee was involved in forming a nonprofit in town to handle the play using the same actors as before," he said. "Absent the desire from the Harper Lee camp, I would not have terminated the contract. If Harper Lee wanted to produce this herself in her hometown, how could I have argued with that?" None of the twists and turns in the backstory of the play hurt its reception Friday, where the sold-out crowd stood and applauded at its conclusion, when Atticus shares a final reflection with his daughter, Scout.
"It's business as usual for the play," said George Landegger, an industrialist and philanthropist who has been active in Monroeville's affairs. "Nothing has changed; it is essentially the same cast. And of course, the public remains excited about it." The play has already sold out nine of its 12 performances, though Jane Busby, the director, said the pace of sales over the past six weeks has been slower than in recent memory, perhaps because of the new method of selling online. Last year, the performances sold out in five days, owing in part to the excitement over publication of Lee's second book, "Go Set a Watchman." The play has long been an economic boon to this town of about 6,300, drawing thousands of visitors during the five weeks each spring that it is performed. As the producer each year, the museum took in as much as $200,000 in revenues from ticket sales, nearly half of its former annual budget.
This year the museum will receive just the rent for the continued use of its headquarters, the old courthouse, to stage the play. Lee's nonprofit, Mockingbird Company, is paying $48,000 in rent, down from the $63,000 that the museum said it needed to cover expenses. Without the full proceeds from the ticket sales, and a drop in money from the county, the museum had to cut two positions and increasingly relies on volunteers to assist in the gift shop and to lead tours.
Carter, who runs the nonprofit, said Friday that the plan is to donate proceeds from the play to local charities, including the Monroe County Public Library, which she said needed an infusion of funds.
Carter remains something of a polarizing figure in this town, where many respect the dutiful care she provided for the author and others complain that she is spiteful and has used her power as Lee's representative to settle scores.
Stephanie Rogers, who was the executive director of the museum, said she believes her firing last summer by the Monroe County Commission, the local government panel, was influenced by Carter. Rogers also thinks Carter resented that the museum had fought the trademark suit.
Carter has denied any role in the firing. The commission's chairman, Greg Norris, and Tom Lomenick, the museum's board president at the time, have said she played no role.
But in emails to Norris last year, obtained through a public record request, Lomenick cited several reasons he thought Rogers should be fired. She was, among other things, he wrote, going out of her way to antagonize the new nonprofit producers of the play by, he said, doing things like hiding props. "You and the commissioners have got to step up for the good of the county and city," Lomenick told Norris. "We could lose the play all together if Tonja gets mad enough." Rogers, in an interview, denied hiding the props.
Earlier this year Scott Rudin, the producer, announced that he is bringing a second stage adaptation of the play, written by Aaron Sorkin, to Broadway next year. Sergel said Dramatic's Mockingbird adaptation, which his grandfather wrote and which has been performed all over the world, will continue to be widely produced in amateur and regional theaters.
Carter said Friday that she hopes to take the Sergel adaptation on the road to England next year. But wherever it travels, she said, she envisions it at the museum as well.
"It will always be here as far as I can see," she said.
That was good news to cast members, some of whom had said they feared the nonprofit might ultimately decide that the play should take up residence in, say, Montgomery, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival there. Carter said it would be wonderful if the play eventually was performed there, too.
Residents said the play retains a special authenticity when it is performed in the old courthouse -- the sense that the audience is breathing the very same air as Atticus and Scout as they confronted the racism of Alabama in the 1930s.
"I've seen productions in Hong Kong and Pell City," Alabama, said Tim McKenzie, the new president of the museum who has acted in the play for eight years. "Nothing is like it is here."