‘Nelle’s Story’ brings Harper Lee’s life to the stage

Until now, at least, Atlanta playwright Melita Easters has been primarily known for her play “Mrs. John Marsh,” a one-woman show she penned in the early 1990s about the iconic “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell.

Consider Easters’ latest work, “Nelle’s Story,” a belated but entirely appropriate companion piece of sorts. Subtitled “The World of Harper Lee,” this one-woman show delves into another Southern literary icon, whose recently uncovered sequel, “Go Set a Watchman,” to her 1960s masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is due out later this month.

That the classic Mitchell and Lee novels were published roughly 25 years apart – about the same amount of time that transpired between the writing of the two plays – is only one of several coincidences that connect the projects.

“I was struck by a lot of the parallels between them as strong-willed Southern women,” Easters said about her research. “They were both daughters of lawyers, and both had older siblings who were lawyers. Both led quiet, non-celebrity lifestyles, if not shunning publicity, exactly, then in terms of granting very few interviews.

“Both of their books were instant bestsellers that caught everyone by surprise, and both of the movie versions were as well-received and respected as the literary works themselves,” the playwright continues. “And both women won Pulitzer Prizes for the only novels they ever wrote … or so we all thought.”

Timed to coincide with the highly touted publication of “Watchman,” Synchronicity Theatre presents an independent production of the new play, which debuted at the Cloister Theatre on Sea Island in 2012.

The Atlanta premiere of “Nelle’s Story” is being directed by Carolyn Cook, one of the city’s most acclaimed actresses – best-known as a longtime artistic associate with the recently dissolved Georgia Shakespeare and for her performances in numerous shows at area theaters including a turn as the adult “Scout” Finch (and narrator) in a 2007 Theatrical Outfit version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In four separate monologues, “Nelle’s Story” spans 70 years. Starring Mandi Lee (no relation to the author), the play opens in 1937 with Harper Lee as a young girl in rural Monroeville, Ala., essentially the Scout of her famous novel. The second scene finds her in 1958 New York, in the process of writing “Mockingbird.” In the third, Lee is addressing a group of West Point cadets, circa 1965. The final vignette is set in 2007, with an elderly Lee reflecting back on the momentous events of her life and career.

“[The play] makes for an interesting and enjoyable journey for a theater audience, watching this woman progress and transform over so much time,” Cook says.

Despite all of the controversy surrounding the release of “Go Set a Watchman” – the speculations about Lee’s state of mind or whether the author ever truly intended it to be published – for her part, Easters opts to look on the bright side.

“If you’ve never met her before and can’t really talk to her now, there’s no way to know for sure whether she’s of sound mind,” the playwright admits. “But in biographies about Lee, in the few interviews there are with her, it’s a fact that an earlier draft existed of the book that eventually became ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

After a pause, she elaborates, “One of the loveliest and most pleasant aspects of my research was realizing how Lee lived her life embodying the kind of principles put forth in ‘Mockingbird.’ Hopefully, people will come away from this play with a deeper appreciation for that, for the woman behind the book.

“Like a lot of people, I can’t wait to read ‘Watchman.’ Now more than ever, at this point in time when we’re still grappling with thorny issues about racism and race relations, all of us could probably use another dose of a simply told story about tolerance, love and respect.”