YANKTON, S.D. | Ian Geers' first job out of college involves oil changes, prop care and playing three characters in a touring show of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"I've learned to sleep in vehicles, which is something I could never do until this job," says Geers, a first-year member of the National Players, America's longest-running professional touring company.
Geers joins nine other performers and worker bees (they are one and the same) in bringing William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" to Mount Marty College.
The curtain rises on "As You Like It" at Marian Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Sunday). Show time for "Mockingbird" is 7:30 p.m. Monday. The National Players will also perform a 90-minute version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at 10 a.m. on Tuesday for more than 600 area high school students assembled for workshops and more, part of Mount Marty's annual theater day event.
Geers, a 2014 graduate of Boston University, landed his first job with the National Players, doing so before he'd read Harper Lee's bestselling novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," which earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.
"I was one of the 25 percent of the country that didn't read the book in high school," he says.
However, he'd seen the play as a 13-year-old and jumped at the chance to play multiple roles in the theater company's version. Geers plays Judge Taylor, as well as Arthur "Boo" Radley and Mr. Cunningham, a farmer stung by racism and the Great Depression.
"Judge Taylor has become maybe the most fun character I've ever played," Geers says. "He's 70 years old and described in the book as being a 'sleeping shark.'"
Taylor, according to Geers, is on a level of understanding with lead Atticus Finch, an attorney played in the movie by Gregory Peck, a role that landed Peck the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963.
"The judge is one of the few members of the town who isn't racist," Geers says. "He assigns Atticus to the trial and that says something in that he seeks out the best attorney in town to handle the case."
Set in 1932 in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., the play shows the judge's hands are tied. While he may believe in the innocence of Tom Robinson, an African-American accused of assualting and raping Mayella Ewell, Judge Taylor realizes he must abide by the jury's decision.
Cunningham is a member of the jury.
"Even with the power a judge has, he must still do what the jury says," Geers concludes.
Charged with making the case as Finch is Jacob Mundell, who also serves as the leader of this touring company as it rambles across the country for stays of two to three days at a time. In 66 years, the National Players have performed in 43 states.
"A great way to sum up the experience is that there are 10 of us in three vehicles," Mundell says. "We do all the technical work, we push the cues, there is no one on the crew that isn't an actor. We drive the truck, the van and the car."
Geers makes sure each has a check-up and oil change when necessary.
And, playing Atticus Finch, one of the most well-known characters in modern movie history?
"The temptation is to make him perfect," says Mundell, now in his second year with the tour. "Many view him as a man on a hill with all the answers. That's well and good, but the actor's job and my challenge is to show that while he makes commendable decisions, I need to show he struggles to do the right thing."
Mundell's favorite Finch scene comes early in the movie. It's when the character sits with his daughter, "Scout," on the porch and carefully, but directly, addresses the scourge of racism in Maycomb.
"It's the first scene where you meet him," Mundell says. "People at school have accused Scout of having a father who defends Tom Robinson (an African-American accused of assaulting and raping Mayella Ewell). He walks Scout through it. It's a very heated topic in town.
"Atticus is very patient and, I'd say, humble and with grace."
The fact the lessons laid out in "Mockingbird" haven't been either learned nor fully practiced all these years later, while stunning, still makes the drama relevant, if not current.
"The story takes place in the1930s," Mundell says. "Harper Lee published the book in 1960. It's still a bestseller and we're performing it in 2015."