Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch is at the height of his career.
Of course the original To Kill A Mockingbird is on many a banned book list. And this show should top any banned show list. It’s that terrific.
To call this the best non-musical play to come to Dallas in years doesn’t do the show justice. Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch is at the height of his career and Melanie Moore as Scout grabs the audience from her first line. I’d also like to rave about Daniel Neale who substituted as Dill Harris, giving the role just the right amount of gay for the 1930s but never overdoing it. He was fabulous.
The play takes place in 1934 in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus, an attorney, is defending Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman.
Despite presenting exculpatory evidence that Tom couldn’t have done it, well, no spoilers if you don’t know the story. But you’ll walk out of the theater remembering the word exculpatory the way you walk out of a great musical humming the music because of the way Scout explains it. Again, she’s that good.
Writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) does a great job of mixing bite-sized courtroom scenes with slices of life that develop the characters of the town making this play complex and fascinating.
But what struck me is how this story is exactly what racist book-banners want erased from our history but instead should be taught over and over. Mayella’s false statements on the witness stand are reminiscent of the 1950s accuser of Emmitt Till. And then a scene outside the jail has members of the Klan threatening to do to Tom exactly what happened in Texas to James Byrd in the 1990s. History repeats itself and should be taught not banned.
And in another scene, the kids argue that the Civil War was over 70 years ago but Atticus reminds us that every time some southerners see a free Black person, it reminds them of the defeat. And in Dallas, remember the furor over removing a statue from a Dallas park just a few years ago? To Kill A Mockingbird takes place 90 years ago and yet it’s still so current. The play is gripping from beginning to end.
To Kill A Mockingbird runs at Fair Park Music Hall through May 28. Although the performance I saw was sold out, tickets for the rest of the run are available at BroadwayDallas.org.
Richard Thomas has grown triumphantly as a consummate actor. He delivers a memorable performance rarely seen in a touring Broadway production.
Dramatizing Harper Lee’s sprawling and moving 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is no easy task. The 1962 now classic movie version was vibrant but a stage version has remained elusive. Since 1990, a mediocre and unauthorized adaptation by Christopher Sergel has played schools and community theaters. In 2019 Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation took Broadway by storm. It was a vehicle for Jeff Daniels who triumphed as Atticus Finch, the small-town Maycomb, Alabama lawyer chosen in 1934 to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a White woman.
The touring production of this insightful look at racial injustice stars Richard Thomas, known for his Emmy Award-winning performance in “The Waltons.” Thomas has grown triumphantly as a consummate actor. He delivers a great Atticus that rivals Gregory Peck’s movie performance. Thomas shows his distrust of the town’s justice as he displays his hate of his client’s treatment.
Thomas shifts easily to the insightful sensitivity he uses to raise his two children and his understanding of Calpurnia, the family’s Black maid who helps Finch guide his children to respect racial diversity. It is a memorable performance something rarely seen in a touring Broadway production.
Finch believes Robinson’s innocence but fairness has no place in this bigoted community where justice is slanted against Robinson and his race no matter how eloquently or convincingly Finch defends the man’s innocence. The trial prompts Finch’s children, Scout and Jem, to question the unfair and the unjust views as they eloquently learn about discrimination and hypocrisy with the added input of a neighbor’s child visitor, Dill Harris. Most neighbors around Finch further reveal the town’s notorious biases and unfairness. The play is a penetrating look at rural Southern societal racism. Sorkin’s sharp script has dazzlingly conceived the vibrant and terrifying look at uninhibited intolerance.
Along with Thomas’ masterful performance, Finch’s children are also executed perfectly by Melanie Moore as Scout and Justin Mark as Jem plus Steven Lee Johnson as the pair’s friend Dill. It is too bad that these children’s parts are played by adult actors. Strong performances also shine from Jacqueline Williams as the doubting Calpurnia and Richard Poe as Judge Taylor who tries to conduct a civilized trial. In the huge cast there is not a performance that doesn’t excel.
The one inescapable problem is ASU Gammage’s always problematic sound which makes too much of the brilliant dialogue unintelligible. This stellar “To Kill a Mockingbird” production continues through Sunday, December 11 at ASU Gammage. If available, tickets may be obtained by calling Ticketmaster at 480-965-2022 or ordering tickets online at www.ticketmaster.com.
Thomas’ performance as Finch is worth the price of admission alone.
Atticus Finch sits on his porch alone, stunned by the inexplicable decision by a jury to doom his client, Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of rape, to the death penalty. There’s some hope of an appeal, but this should have been a clear exoneration. As I sat in the Paramount Theatre audience, watching this quiet moment from the national tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird” play out on stage (through Oct. 16), I found myself asking a question that nagged at me the rest of the show: Who, exactly, are we supposed to be feeling sorry for?
The plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is likely one you’re familiar with, whether that’s because you’ve read the 1960 novel by Harper Lee or watched the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. This adaptation from Aaron Sorkin — known for television shows like “The West Wing” and movies like “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” alongside his stage work — shifts the narrative, centering lawyer Atticus Finch rather than his daughter Scout. Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill retell the story of Robinson’s trial and the events that led up to Bob Ewell, the father of Robinson’s accuser, mysteriously falling on his own knife and dying.
The story alternates between trial scenes inside the courtroom and the events leading up to and surrounding that trial as it permeates the town of Maycomb, Alabama. At the play’s center is Finch (Richard Thomas), who does everything he can to win this case for Robinson. He also, however, refuses to acknowledge just how ingrained the racism is in his friends and neighbors, repeatedly telling his children to be respectful and understanding of why they are the way they are.
Sorkin’s writing is as witty and compelling as you might expect. The courtroom scenes are particularly captivating. Arianna Gayle Stucki as accuser Mayella Ewell flies around the courtroom, shouting racist comparisons between Black people and jungle animals to anyone she can lock eyes with. Her striking speech echoes an equally disturbing tirade from her father, who calls Finch a “race traitor,” using talking points that feel eerily similar to rhetoric floating around the internet these days. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath to release the tension and prepare for the following scene.
But in this overt racism comes a perplexing audience reaction, as if realizing the appalling nature of racism for the first time. For instance, there was audible disbelief and disgust when one character reveals that his sick, mixed-race son was turned away from the hospital and later died. A disturbing story, but not particularly surprising, with the play taking place in 1934. Every step of the way, we’re shown racists and yet every step is also met with shock, both on stage and off, that the racists continue to be racist.
Which leads me back to that quiet moment on the porch, where the play seems to want us to focus on Finch’s pain. Sorkin has spoken repeatedly about his efforts to make Finch the story’s protagonist, giving him a flaw (such as believing goodness can be found in everyone) and then allowing him to learn. And while I acknowledge the uphill climb of adapting this story, I found myself struggling to care about Finch belatedly learning that racists are bad when even his children pointed that out to him.
Sorkin has also talked about beefing up the roles of Black characters in his version. But somehow, in this story around the unjust trial of a Black man, the Black characters still feel sidelined in favor of focusing on how their pain affects the poor white folks who are just trying to do the right thing. One scene sees the white character of Mrs. Henry Dubose (played by Mary Badham, Scout in the 1962 film) drop racist remarks only for the two Black characters onstage to silently react in the background without much consequence beyond that.
I truly hate yucking peoples’ yum, and I honestly believe that many will love this play. It’s an excellent introduction to the story for the unfamiliar or those who have forgotten over the years. Still, I can’t help feeling like we should be past many of the lessons being taught by this show. We hear all the time about the atrocities of the justice system, from addressing the inequity of our current system to revisiting how it failed in the past. I couldn’t help but think of Emmett Till, whose family is still seeking justice after their discovery of an unserved arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham — the woman whose accusations led to Till’s death — resulted in neither an indictment nor a confession.
That clouds how I experienced this play. I fault no one for enjoying it. Thomas’ performance as Finch is worth the price of admission alone. Director Bartlett Sher has Thomas deliver Finch’s impassioned closing arguments in the trial directly to the audience, effectively making us the faceless jury in this awful trial, and implicating us in its inevitable verdict. And yet, somehow, despite a beautiful performance by Yaegel T. Welch as Robinson, we’re still led to feel more sorry for the lawyer who lost the case than the man whose life is being ripped away or the community from which he came. That just doesn’t feel right.
Richard Thomas raises To Kill a Mockingbird to new heights. Thomas is a force to be reckoned with.
Playwright Aaron Sorkin’s take on the classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee takes flight during its run at the Citizens Bank Opera House.
Boston’s best theater, previously known as the Boston Opera House, played host to the touring cast and crew for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which held shows from April 5-17.
The show closely mirrors the original plot of Lee’s novel, following children, Scout and Jeremy “Jem” Finch, as well as their friend Charles Baker “Dill” Harris as they experience the Finch children’s father, attorney Atticus Finch, take on the challenge of defending Tom Ronbinson, a Black man accused of beating and raping a white girl in their small farm town of Maycomb, Alabama.
The show and novel take place in 1934, and highlight the racial tension within the Deep South, as well as the aftermath these communities faced after being pulled apart by the Civil War. The war, which ended slavery in the United States, left many white Americans unhappy with the newly-freed Black Americans, particularly those who lived in places like Alabama.
As Scout, Jem and Dill recount the events of the previous summer, viewers are thrown into their world, and are left trying to solve the mystery of their father’s case, as well as one surrounding a mysterious neighbor – all before school resumes in the fall.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, the show is a wondrous take on the classic novel many were forced to read in high school. The staging was intriguing, the set transformative and the casting was done with expertise and insight.
Despite being sat in the far left orchestra with a ‘limited view,’ nearly every moment of the show was blocked downstage, allowing even those who were hindered by light fixtures and curtains to enjoy just about all of the play. The only hidden pieces included the jury during the courthouse and trial scenes, as well as some minor set pieces in the transitional moments.
While it would have been lovely to see the cast that portrayed the jury in Robinson’s trial, as well as their reactions to the shocking revelations made during witness cross-examinations, being close enough to see the expressions for the rest of the play made this sacrifice worth it.
In terms of the story, the narrator Scout is meant to be no older than nine, and Jem and Dill no older than 14. However, the three ‘children’ are played by adults. While it is understandable that the show contains adult language and mature subject matter, the fact that these children weren’t truly children took away from the intensity of the storytelling and message Lee had intended.
Despite the inaccuracy in age, the portrayal of the three main characters was incredibly well done. Played by Melanie Moore, Scout was intelligent, sassy and a firecracker on stage. Scout handles most of the narration, and Moore’s take on an Alabama accent was both adorable and accurate, holding the attention of the audience as she sets up the story.
Her brother Jem (Justin Mark) held such a heavy presence on stage. Jem is a protective brother and son, and Mark demanded all eyes be on him, even when it wasn’t necessarily his moment to shine. Mark was able to unfold the character of Jem as the show went on, and had the audience learning with him as he faced the challenges of growing up as the only son of the most hated man in Maycomb.
Dill, the Finch children’s neighbor and silly sidekick, added just the right amount of comic relief to such a darkened plotline. Played by Steven Lee Johnson, the comedic timing was perfection, and the tone of voice used was just high-pitched enough to give Dill the boy-next-door innocence he needed to charm viewers.
Dill has a handful of serious moments in the show, and Johnson executed them beautifully. Towards the end of the play, during a heart-to-heart with Atticus, Johnson brought tears to my eyes as he shared Dill’s struggles of being a boy with absent parents left to his own devices. It’s safe to say Johnson is the hidden gem within this cast.
However, the true star of the show was Mr. Atticus Finch himself, played by Richard Thomas. A Tony-nominated and Emmy award-winning actor, Thomas raises “To Kill A Mockingbird” to new heights. He brings just enough seriousness to the rigid Atticus, and enough experience to the show to help improve the entire cast. Thomas is a force to be reckoned with, as is Atticus Finch, and the two made the most enticing, beautiful pair.
Honorable mentions within the show included Jaqueline Williams, who played the Finch family cook and maid Calpurnia, and Anthony Natale who played Link Deas, a witness in the Robinson case. With Link Deas, “To Kill A Mockingbird” diverts from the original story and has Natale play him as deaf, something originally done with the sophomore cast of the Broadway version of the show. Natale speaks the majority of his lines through American Sign Language, and the three children take turns as his narrator in an incredibly moving performance.
The costuming, lighting and makeup were all standard, nothing in particular jumped out as outstanding or revolutionary. The set design, however, was incredibly well done. The stage transformed from a courtroom, an interrogation room, the Finch’s front porch and back again countless times through the production, and it was done seamlessly thanks to the cast’s quick work.
The Finch’s front porch was particularly beautiful, with a screen door, window, wooden bench and three mismatched wooden chairs scattered across to add dimension and life to the setting. A good majority of the plot unfolded here, and it was lovely to see Scout and Jem learn countless life lessons in their own front yard.
Though “To Kill A Mockingbird” has packed up and moved to its next stop on tour, the show is a striking portrayal of a classic story, and is most definitely worth catching on Broadway or in the next city this cast and crew stop in.
A performance that is both modestly human and divinely heroic. All rise for Richard Thomas.
And so, a mere 34 months after it was first announced, Aaron Sorkin’s thrilling stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has finally opened at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, starring Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch.
Even before the pandemic closed theaters across the world, this was a storied production, with behind-the-scenes legal drama sometimes overshadowing the legal drama onstage. Bad feelings directed at the original producer, Scott Rudin, might very well have cost Sorkin a Tony nomination for his brilliant script.
That was then. This is now. The new producer of record is Orin Wolf, one of Broadway’s most admired producers. After breaking box office records on Broadway with a month’s rehearsal in New York City and a week of rehearsal in Buffalo, this much-anticipated show has opened here to a glorious welcome. It stars one of America’s most adored actors playing one of the most beloved characters of American literature.
Does the show live up to all the hype? It certainly does.
Bartlett Sher’s direction maintains the momentum of the storytelling, revealing the wisdom, the humor and even the pain of Sorkin’s script, seemingly without effort. Sorkin skips the details of daily life in Maycomb, Ala., during the Great Depression, which occupy the first half of the novel, and gets right to the story of how an African American man named Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman, and how a country lawyer named Atticus Finch steps forward to defend him.
Told in the novel through the eyes of Atticus’ daughter, 6-year-old Scout, the play uses three child narrators, portrayed by adults: Scout, played by Melanie Moore; her brother Jem, played by Justin Mark; and their friend Dill Harris, played by Steven Lee Johnson. All three bring humor, charm and at times the profound ring of nostalgia to their roles, as they simultaneously perform their childhoods as present moment and as memory.
Moore has the unenviable task of following Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Tony Award-winning performance in the role (and of being on stage with wonderful Mary Badham who was Oscar nominated for playing Scout in the 1962 film, and here delightfully plays the nasty neighbor). Moore holds her own, appealingly, as the clever and feisty little girl. Mark endearingly plays a boy on the verge of manhood who is only beginning to understand the depth of his father’s character. Johnson hits the mark perfectly as the misfit friend whose good-natured silliness disguises remarkable courage and resilience.
The African American characters are given fuller development in Sorkin’s script than in the novel or film. Jacqueline Williams is marvelous as Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper and cook. I first saw Williams in “From the Mississippi Delta” back in the early 1990s and vividly remember her expert comic timing and wonderful characterizations. She is equally splendid here, both as comic foil to Atticus and as his most searing critic.
Yaegel T. Welch brings dignity and intensity to Tom Robinson, but also finds moments to liven the man’s personality with flashes of dry humor.
Joey Collins indulges all the hateful nastiness of racist, drunken, abusive Bob Ewell, giving us ample permission to forgo any sympathy whatsoever at his well-deserved downfall. Arianna Gayle Stucki is affecting as Ewell’s daughter Mayella, a pathetic and tragic woman who cruelly seeks to assuage the pain of her life by sending an innocent man to his death.
Richard Poe engagingly adds another lively judge to his repertoire. Anthony Natale gives a witty and memorable performance as the town drunk, a role he performs largely in American Sign Language.
The storytelling is aided by Miriam Buether’s handsome and fluid scenery, as well as by Ann Roth’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, Scott Lehrer’s sound, and a remarkable musical score by Adam Guettel. This is a Broadway A-plus team.
Yes, everyone knows Richard Thomas as television’s John Boy Walton. He also is a celebrated stage actor. I have seen him as Peer Gynt. I have seen him as Richard II. I have seen him act in plays by Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman and even Pete Gurney. He may be more advanced in years than the character he is playing, but few actors project the honesty and decency of Thomas, both in the public imagination and in this role, and certainly none exceeds him in acting talent. He easily rises to the requirements of embodying an icon of American literature with a performance that is both modestly human and divinely heroic. All rise for Richard Thomas.
The play is long but keeps us transfixed with a full-hearted story of prejudice, compassion, courage and outrage that is sadly as relevant today as it was in 1960.
“Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird”
4 stars (out of 4)
Presented at Shea Buffalo Theatre through April 2. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. March 30 to April 1; 2 and 8 p.m. April 2. Tickets start at $37 at the Shea’s box office, online at sheas.org or at 847-0850. Masks are recommended but not required.
All rise for the miracle that is To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway.
Aaron Sorkin has adapted Harper Lee’s benchmark 1960 novel of growing up in a racially segregated, hate–charged, Depression–era Alabama so that it adheres to the granular specificity of the past while speaking to the harsh realities of a turbulent present. It’s a tricky, balancing act and Sorkin — in tandem with dynamic director Bartlett Sher and a flawless acting ensemble — never loses sight of making Lee’s tale thrillingly alive on stage. Brimming with humor, generous heart and gritty provocation, To Kill a Mockingbird is as timely as it is timeless.
Two things to get straight: The play isn’t the book. And neither is it the beloved 1962 film version that won Gregory Peck an Oscar as Atticus Finch, the gentleman lawyer from small–town Maycomb who damn near started a riot by defending Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a black handyman falsely accused of raping a white woman. This Mockingbird stands on its own. And it sparks theatrical fireworks that light up the stage.
Months before opening night, To Kill a Mockingbird suffered contentious legal wrangling between producer Scott Rudin and the estate of Lee, who died in 2016, over depicting Atticus as someone less perfect and more human than “the most honest and decent person in Maycomb.” When the dust cleared, Atticus was no longer a gun owner with a penchant for drinking and cussing. But he wasn’t a paragon either. In a towering performance from a never–better Jeff Daniels, Atticus is a good man besieged by doubts, fears and flashes of righteous anger.
There’s genuine daring in this production, with Sorkin deepening the roles of Tom and Finch housekeeper Calpurnia (a brilliant, bracing LaTanya Richardson Jackson) who finally get to speak for themselves as persons of color spoiling to be heard. Another bold stroke is casting the Finch children with adult actors. Celia Keenan–Bolger is sensational as Jean–Louise, aka Scout, the tomboy daughter who never tires of asking her widower father to explain the roots of prejudice. Scout, based on Lee’s memories of her own 10–year–old self, narrates the play with her older brother Jem (Will Pullen) and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick), a character modeled on Lee’s childhood chum Truman Capote. There’s a powerful sense of these children, now grown, still negotiating a world of festering social injustice.
While Lee took her time getting to the courthouse drama, Sorkin lunges headlong into the fray. And, under Sher’s urgent direction, the experience is electrifying. Racism is on trial here, and so is white accommodation, of which Atticus is not entirely blameless. Finch asks his children to walk in the shoes of another person before condemning him. But does that excuse Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the abusive father who forces his daughter Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi, superb) to frame Tom Robinson for a rape he never committed?
The Finch children can hardly grapple with the moral tangle of intolerance, except in their father’s lesson that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, a symbol of innocence. Playing Atticus like a gathering storm, Daniels is magnificent at showing the growing passion of a lawyer feeling the boot of bigotry on his neck. Atticus is hardly a white savior since his arguments for Tom fall on deaf ears.
There is no scene, like the one in the movie, where a black pastor in the gallery watches Atticus leave court in defeat and instructs Scout: “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your father is passing.” But the appeal to our better natures permeates this landmark production of an American classic. No dusty memorial to a distant past, the emotionally shattering To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that the fight against racism is blisteringly relevant. Sorkin sets a new gold standard for adapting one generation’s cry from the heart to another’s. The result is unmissable and unforgettable.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great American story, and this production at the Shubert Theatre in Manhattan is a great work of American theater. As nearly everyone knows — from the 1960 novel as well as the 1962 movie — it’s about the Finch family in rural Alabama in the summer of 1934 and the evil of racism. A single father (Jeff Daniels) — it’s worth noting, if we’re collecting examples of contemporary relevance, that all the children in all the families in this play have only one parent — is raising his son, Jem (Will Pullen), his daughter, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and a visiting neighbor boy, Dill (Gideon Glick). The cast is powerfully, convincingly, alive, both in Scout’s memory as she narrates and for us as these actors fully inhabit their roles.
Atticus Finch is a “small town lawyer who gets paid in vegetables” and is faced with the most challenging and dangerous case of his career: A white girl (Erin Wilhelmi) has accused a black man (Gbenga Akinnagbe) of rape. Her father (Frederick Weller) is a vicious white supremacist. The cast — including smaller roles like that of the Judge (the subtly hilarious Dakin Matthews) — is uniformly fine. Under Bartlett Sher’s vigorous, uncompromising direction, we are allowed to “crawl around in another man’s skin.”
When Paula Vogel, in the cast list for How I Learned to Drive, describes her character Uncle Peck as requiring an actor “one might cast in the role of Atticus,” she assumed, rightly, that anyone, everyone, knew what that implied, so iconic is Atticus as the model of courtesy, stalwart morality, and decency. To understand the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s script, reread the last 20 pages or so of the novel and realize what adaptation for the stage really means.
Daniels is splendid. He has added a trace of weakness and a whiff of shame to the lovable, admirable character. He is human, after all, and this emerges in tiny, nearly missable moments. When Jem asks his father which side he would have fought on if the war were now, Atticus replies, “I’d be hiding under the bed. [pause] It’s a joke.” Jem replies, grimly, “You sure?”
Sorkin’s script is deft as well as fine. When Jem protests that the Civil War was 70 years ago, Atticus replies, “It was yesterday. It’s always yesterday.” There is no way we don’t instinctively add, silently, It’s today, too”.
A guitarist (Allen Tedder) sits on one side of the stage, and an organist (music director Kimberly Grigsby) sits on the other, gently, unobtrusively creating atmosphere (music by Adam Guettel). The set, designed by Miriam Buether, is also gentle and unobtrusive — a porch, a courtroom, a bedroom — all descend from above, without the distraction of stagehands.
The play begins with “All rise,” announcing this as a courtroom drama: We are put on notice to pay close attention, and, further, to “rise to the level of a just God.” The tradition of rising in a courtroom implies respect for the rule of law and for justice. When we hear “All rise” at the play’s end, it seems to invite us to rise to our feet and applaud as though our hearts would break.
Adaptations of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of race, prejudice and bravery in the American South, are rare. There was a film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck; Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown and the supposed setting for the book, runs a production in the courthouse each May. Both of these interpretations stay largely true to the original text, and are popular as a result. The film won Horton Foote a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Monroeville’s plays, allowing “attendees an opportunity to transport themselves back to the time of the book’s setting,” sell out.
A new Broadway production, written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”, The Social Network, A Few Good Men), has proved more controversial. In 2016, weeks before her death, Lee gave her approval for it to go ahead even though “she abhors anything that trades on the book’s fame”. In March this year her estate sued the producers on the grounds that the script was a “fundamental rethink” of the story. They pointed to the larger role of Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the Finches’ maid, changes to the character of Atticus (Jeff Daniels) and an interview with Mr. Sorkin in which he claimed to be offering a “different take” on the tale so well–known from classrooms. A month later, the production countersued, offering to perform the show in a New York court. The case was settled before opening night.
It is true that Mr. Sorkin diverges from Lee’s novel in noticeable ways, and is less reverent of the original text (“I wasn’t going to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and transfer it gently to a stage,” he has said). Plenty is left on the cutting–room floor: although narrated by her, events are not wholly filtered through Scout’s childlike, unreliable perspective; many of the secondary and tertiary Maycomb characters have been lost, including members of the Finch family; there is no jury in the courtroom scenes; the important Boo Radley subplot gets less focus. Many of these changes are probably logistical sacrifices, made to keep the running time to two–and–a–half hours.
Whether the production does that to Calpurnia and Atticus is questionable. Among the terms of the settlement, according to Mr. Sorkin, were that Atticus’s new drinking habit would be excised, along with the shotgun secreted in his closet and exclamations of “goddammit”. The production kept his harsher moments in the script—including an outburst of violence—and Calpurnia’s larger role. Mr. Sorkin stages scenes between the two characters, which touch on masculinity and the memory of the Civil War, and acknowledge the power dynamics in their relationship. The dialogue could easily feel anachronistic, but it is deftly handled.
Still, Calpurnia’s character is not expanded beyond the limits of her service to the Finches. When she is not talking alone with Atticus, she is reduced to simply chiming in from across the room. Ms. Richardson Jackson offers a compelling performance.
Atticus, meanwhile, is not the idealised figure he once was. Mr. Sorkin works hard to emphasise the contemporary relevance of the story, and the question of how far communities should tolerate those who refuse to tolerate others. Where Atticus’s willingness to search for the good in others is his great strength in the book, it is presented as a flaw and a weakness in the play. It seems to be a nod to the racist version of Atticus as written in “Go Set a Watchman,” though Mr Sorkin has said that he has not read the book, published in 2015. He was inspired instead by President Donald Trump’s mealy–mouthed comments about white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
At its best, the writing is in harmony with Lee’s. The moments between Atticus and his children have a feeling of warmth and respect that readers will delight in recognising from the book, matched with Mr. Sorkin’s signature fast–paced, precise dialogue.
This new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is to be applauded. Simply transferring this beloved tale from page to stage is one thing; attempting to meld two narratives and writing styles is a much bolder endeavour. Incorporating the novel’s post–publication history is a shrewd move. It asks provocative questions of its American audience and is a reminder of why Lee’s work deserves to be returned to time and again.
Not long into this new To Kill a Mockingbird, a young girl considers what she’s just heard in a courtroom. “All rise,” says Scout, marveling at the weight of the words while imagining if people always went high instead of low.
It’s a beautiful scene in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation, which opened after settling a legal battle with Harper Lee’s estate over changes to the source material. Nearly 60 years after its Pulitzer Prize–winning debut, the story is remarkably relevant, emotionally rich — and a bit manipulative.
Sorkin (A Few Good Men, “The West Wing”) takes a non–linear, theatrical approach in this telling, but events and lines from both the novel and the 1962 Oscar–winning Gregory Peck film are intact. Quick recap: In 1930s small–town Alabama, upright Atticus (Jeff Daniels) defends Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman (Erin Wilhelmi).
The trial is still seen through the eyes of the widowed Atticus’ children, here played by adults: inquisitive tomboy Scout (Celia Keenan–Bolger), rebellious big brother Jem (Will Pullen) and their needy friend Dill (Gideon Glick). Grown–ups playing youngsters can grate, but the conceit clicks, thanks to fine acting and the fact that the story is veiled in memory.
Sorkin also enlarged the role of Atticus’ black housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). More of a social conscience than a mere cook, she challenges Atticus’ tolerance for the bigotry around them, rocketing the story to the Black Lives Matter era.
Bartlett Sher, the ace behind the Tony–winning The King and I revival and Oslo, directs strong performances, especially from Keenan–Bolger, whose Scout lights up the stage with warmth.
Daniels turns in the finely tuned, down–to–earth performance we’ve come to expect from him: It’s a very Jeff Daniels kind of portrait. Yet his courtroom scenes course with raw emotion and scenes at home pack genuine sweetness.
To Kill a Mockingbird sings its own sad song.
If you’ve read Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird — and if you grew up in the United States, there’s a good chance you have — the story now unfolding on Broadway may throw you a bit.
Oh sure, the major elements are present. A small Southern town in the mid–1930s. Three kids named Scout, Jem and Dill. And, of course, a noble lawyer named Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) who takes on the lost cause of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, the production is of a high standard: beautifully designed and lit, well-acted, and with just the right balance of pathos, humor and outrage.
What’s missing from Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation is the novel’s vividly described community, or the sense that the story is just as much about Scout’s coming of age as it is about the crusade by Atticus, her father. Atticus may now show hints of trouble and doubt, but he’s still the moral lighthouse guiding Maycomb, Alabama.
The show opens with the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and keeps returning to it at regular intervals. Practically speaking, this means that Miriam Buether’s evocative set must constantly be moved in and out.
The trio are grown–ups looking back on past events, justifying the casting of adult actors. Celia Keenan–Bolger is especially good as Scout, and she easily could have handled all the narrative heavy lifting, preserving the crucial element of a little girl’s point of view.
This Mockingbird revolves around Atticus, and thankfully Daniels is sterling. Sorkin gives us more insights into the lawyer’s personality and thinking by adding conversations with Tom and with Atticus’ cook, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). This also helps boost the story’s major black characters, and it works.
As it is, this version of To Kill a Mockingbird is a refreshingly old–fashioned yarn.
As this is a trial, let’s have a verdict: To Kill a Mockingbird, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on Thursday, is not guilty.
Evidence shows that it does not deface the Harper Lee novel on which it is based, as the Lee estate at one point contended. And far from devaluing the property as a moneymaking machine, it has created an honorable stream of income that should pour into the estate’s coffers for years to come.
But as any reader of the novel knows, to say something is not guilty is not the same as saying it’s innocent. And this adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird — written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Jeff Daniels — is hardly innocent.
How could it be? Every ounce of glossy know–how available at the highest echelons of the commercial theater has been applied to ensure its success, both on Lee’s terms and on what it supposes are ours.
It is, for one thing, gorgeously atmospheric, from the weathered barn–red siding that serves as the show curtain (the set design is by Miriam Buether) to Adam Guettel’s mournful guitar and pump organ music, which sounds like hymns decomposing before your ear. Mr. Sher has made sure that every movement, every perfectly cast face, every stage picture and costume tells the story so precisely that it would do so even without words.
Ah, but the words. As Mr. Sorkin has explained pre–emptively, he faced a dilemma in approaching the material. He could not alter the plot significantly lest he alienate audiences who grew up treasuring the 1960 novel or the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. To Kill a Mockingbird still had to be the story of the widower lawyer Atticus Finch (Mr. Daniels) bravely standing up to racism in small–town Alabama in the mid–1930s. Defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, he could not suddenly introduce DNA evidence to win the case.
On the other hand, if Mr. Sorkin did not make major changes, the play would be both structurally and politically insupportable in 2018. The leisurely pace of Lee’s narrative wouldn’t work onstage, as the previously authorized adaptation proved in its dull fidelity. That’s because Lee took her time getting to the trial, which doesn’t even begin until halfway through the book. For 150 pages she immerses readers in the charming, perplexing, ominous daily life of Maycomb as seen and narrated by Atticus’s daughter, Scout.
Mr. Sorkin does away with that structure, introducing the trial almost immediately and returning to it at regular intervals. In between, he backfills the information and characters the novel frontloaded, but just on a need–to–know basis. The narration — now split among Scout (Celia Keenan–Bolger); her brother, Jem (Will Pullen); and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick) — no longer suggests long hazy childhood summers spent squashing redbugs and pondering why the world is evil so much as a Junior League police procedural.
This is very effective; Mr. Sorkin apparently trusted that the actors, working with Mr. Sher, would fill in the blanks, and they do. (Having adults play the kids is especially helpful, and Ms. Keenan–Bolger is terrific.) Also effective, exhilarating even, are the interventions by which Mr. Sorkin set out to correct — or, let’s say, extrapolate — the novel’s politics for our time.
He had to do something. In a novel, we accept the worldview of the narrator, however limited or objectionable. Scout, who is barely 6 at the start of the story, can use words in print that would make her instantly unsympathetic onstage. We also accept that a first–person portrait of a white child’s moral awakening to racism will primarily focus on how it affects the white people around her.
But onstage, a work about racial injustice in which its principal black characters have no agency would be intolerable, so Mr. Sorkin makes a series of adjustments. With Scout’s point of view subordinated, we see Atticus through our own eyes instead of hers, making him the firm center of the story.
This gives Mr. Sorkin room to expand the roles of the two main black characters Atticus deals with: his client Tom (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and his housekeeper, Calpurnia. In Tom’s case, the expansion is subtle, largely a matter of giving him the dignity of voicing his own predicament. “I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” he says — adapting a line that was Scout’s in the book.
Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) gets a bigger remake. Bossy toward the children but deferential toward white adults in Lee’s account, she serves in the play as Atticus’s foil and needling conscience. Mocking his argument that Maycomb needs more time to overcome racism, she says, “How much time would Maycomb like?” Their tart but loving squabbles remind Scout of hers with Jem: They behave, she realizes, like brother and sister.
That’s a startling and somewhat sentimentalized notion, but Ms. Jackson and Mr. Daniels, inerrant in their dryness, pull it off, and Mr. Daniels’s unfussy mastery is useful throughout. But Mr. Sorkin wants a total hero and gets one. When Bob Ewell, the father of the woman supposedly raped, shows up on the Finches’ porch to make threats, Atticus does some kind of flip–and–fold maneuver on him, leaving him groaning in pain. We accept this not only because it’s satisfying but because Mr. Sorkin’s Ewell (Frederick Weller at his most feral) is not merely a violent drunk and a racist but a foaming–at–the–mouth monstrosity.
These adjustments succeed in themselves. And the material taken largely unchanged from Lee is, naturally, successful as well. The trial, presided over by the hilarious Dakin Matthews as Judge Taylor, is riveting, especially when Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, takes the stand. As played by Erin Wilhelmi, holding herself like a bent pipe cleaner in a print dress, she is a living illustration of pathos transmuted into rage.
It’s what happens in the gap between the old and new storytelling styles, as Mr. Sorkin tries to kill two mockingbirds with one stone, that gives me pause. His play, with its emphasis on the trial, is about justice, and is thus a bright–line tragedy.
The novel is about something much murkier: accommodation. Atticus — who was based to some extent on Lee’s father — despises racism as a form of incivility but insists that any man, even Bob Ewell, can be understood if you walk in his shoes or crawl around in his skin. It’s hardly a comedy but is nevertheless hopeful to the extent that it clears some space for a future.
These are two worthy ideas, if contradictory. In light of racial injustice, accommodation seems to be a white luxury; in light of accommodation, justice seems hopelessly naïve. Perhaps what this beautiful, elegiac version of To Kill a Mockingbird most movingly asks is: Can we ever have both?
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” You won’t hear Atticus Finch say those words to his son Jem in the To Kill a Mockingbird now alighting on Broadway. The banners outside the theater proclaim, in all capital letters, “HARPER LEE’S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,” but the smaller print tells the truth: “A new play by Aaron Sorkin.”
The production is “not an homage or an exercise in nostalgia,” wrote Sorkin for this magazine, “I [didn’t] swaddle the book in bubble wrap and transfer it gently to the stage. Theaters aren’t museums.” Reverent readers–turned–audience members might clutch their pearls (as the Lee estate did), but it’s exciting to hear a writer speak clearly about intent — and about that intangible but incontrovertible sense of present consciousness that a piece of theater owes to its moment. Sorkin has written a new play, and it’s characteristically taut and nimble, fluid and funny, with plenty to meditate on and argue about. Its goal is to speak audibly about 2018 and — sometimes poignantly — it succeeds. As a piece of writing, it’s both rollicking and ruminative, and my own personal jury is still out on its major thematic turn of the dial: a condemnation of modern respectability politics through the developing character of Atticus. But as a piece of theater, it’s magnificent. Bartlett Sher and his designers have created a shifting, breathing, gorgeously orchestrated world, and while the top–billed Jeff Daniels is indeed lighting up the stage as the story’s iconic lawyer, every member of the ensemble shines alongside him. As a company, under Sher’s careful and majestic direction, they are incandescent.
Whether or not the influence is conscious, this To Kill a Mockingbird owes something to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s great 1980s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. It revels in the dramatic possibilities of narration, and it has to stretch itself less to find those flexible storyteller–cum–character voices, since its source material already unfolds in the first person. And what a person. Celia Keenan–Bolger is so wonderful as Scout Finch that the air seems to buzz around her. Shoulders hiked up with youthful energy, thin and furrow–browed in a blonde pageboy cut and denim overalls, she’s light and solemn at once, luminous and grounded and sharp as a penknife. When she canters loose–limbed across the stage, or nestles in nooks and crannies to eavesdrop on her elders, it’s impossible to watch anything else. Keenan–Bolger is 40, and she seems born to the part of this smart, headstrong 6–year–old in a way that gives you the rare, enchanting sense that you really are watching an actor’s soul shimmer in public. She and her fellow adult–kids — the equally marvelous Will Pullen as Scout’s brother Jem and Gideon Glick as their oddball friend Dill — are like a trio of virtuoso violinists: You can see the children, the beautiful instruments that are being brought to life, and you can see the incredible grace and skill of the performers, and above all you can hear the music.
“I’ll be narrating this story,” Keenan–Bolger’s Scout informs us, her chin upturned with the unruffled brio of the very young. “And I’m also part of the narrative.” She’s got some big questions, and she’s ready to dig for the truth. Or she thinks she is. Sorkin leaps to the end of Lee’s novel to begin his play, galloping back and forth from the climax and wrapping the story of hate and hope and the sickening, familiar miscarriage of justice inside a children’s detective romp. Bob Ewell fell on his own knife — or did he?Scout’s not so sure, and she’s crafting a memory play in order to piece together the events of the summer of 1935 in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. The summer Dill came to town. The summer of Boo Radley. The summer of the trial of Tom Robinson. The summer she and her brother really started to grow up.
So far, so Harper Lee. But Sorkin’s major twist is that here — in this play and, the play is arguing, in this age — Atticus has as much growing to do as his children. In fact, he has more. The kids have their heads on pretty straight in Sorkin’s world: They see ugliness, dishonesty, cowardice, or blind hate, and they call it out for what it is. Sometimes in their righteous indignation they lose their cool, as when Jem decimates the prize camelia bush of their bigoted neighbor Mrs. Henry Lafayette DuBose (Phyllis Somerville) with his sister’s twirling baton. Their father is more temperate. He believes in right action, and he also believes in courtesy — to Mrs. DuBose and even to the likes of Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), a sadistic, craven, virulently racist lowlife who proudly claims ties to the KKK, threatens to lynch people who cross him, and beats and molests his own daughter, the broken, brainwashed Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi). “I believe in being respectful,” Atticus says to Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the black woman who has worked for his family since before Scout was born, and whom Scout perceives as having a frank, sibling–like relationship with her father. “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it,” Calpurnia shoots back at her well–meaning white boss.
Is Atticus’s insistence on decency a reflection of the relative ease and comfort in which he lives? Is it a code that’s purchased at the expense of real justice, real progress? Can we just not afford it anymore? “They don’t deserve an explanation!” shouts Jem of the people in Maycomb, Bob Ewell included, who lead with their fear and their hatred, while his patient patrician father is constantly attempting to explain, if not excuse, people. Atticus’s famous exhortation to his children, that they can’t truly understand a person until they “climb into his skin and walk around in it” is still here, but it no longer resonates as flawlessly sage counsel. Instead, it seems to suggest this Atticus’s blind spots, the limits of the all–encompassing empathy he attempts to cultivate. The color of that skin is much more important than Atticus supposes: He can imagine the suffering that drove Bob Ewell, a white man, to becoming a monster, but can he actually imagine the suffering that the wrongfully accused Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a black man, lives with every day, and under the pressures of which he has remained kind, hardworking, and human? The first time this Atticus meets Tom to offer to defend him in court (against Bob Ewell’s baselessly despicable accusation that Tom has raped Mayella), he talks over him until Tom finally demands to be heard. Sorkin’s Atticus is still a man of integrity, but the new trajectory set before him is clear: He’ll have to check his privilege.
As a reframing of character that launches To Kill a Mockingbird squarely into the center of many a hot contemporary debate, it works. Daniels is almost too good. He’s so immensely solid, so appealing and articulate and affecting in the role — and the audience is breathlessly overjoyed to watch him — that the sense that, when the story begins, this is a man with well–intentioned blinders on gets a little obscured. This Atticus doesn’t tell Jem that courage is knowing you’re licked before you begin, because he doesn’t seem to know he is licked (and because, in the novel, that definition specifically arises from Atticus’s respect for Mrs. DuBose, who manages to kick her morphine addiction before dying; here, the nasty Mrs. DuBose gets no exculpatory humanizing. Sorkin has written an Atticus in the person of Daniels, who seems so rooted, intelligent, and open–eyed. Can we really buy his insistence on the fundamental goodness of the people of Maycomb, his certainty that when they’re called upon in court to rise — not simply to stand, Scout notes, but to “raise [themselves] to the level of a just God” — they won’t let their fears or prejudices “extend to sending an innocent man to his death?” “Time’s are changing,” he assures Calpurnia, but we’re more than prepared for her flat reply: “You sure about that?” (Sher fills the court’s audience box with ensemble members, but he tellingly keeps the twelve chairs in the jury box empty: Atticus can’t see these men — these embittered white farmers who will vote their fears and their self–interest every time — until it’s too late.)
Link Deas (Neal Huff) is the good–hearted cotton farmer who masquerades as the town drunk, keeping the ugly and ignorant at arm’s length with his affected dishevelment and his bottle of Coca Cola disguised in a brown paper bag. Outwardly, Deas couldn’t be more different from the aristocratic lawyer, in his trademark linen suits and tortoise shell glasses — but both men are smart enough to see the perpetual disappointment of the world, its track record of cowardice and cruelty. One is more personally broken by it, but both are attempting to find their way through cynicism towards something else. Call it courage.
But a different argument is being made with this Atticus, and all’s fair in love and adaptation. Seen another way, it’s Daniels’s full, nuanced performance that keeps Sorkin’s pointedness from feeling pedantic. And it’s Sher, too. Sher’s masterful elevation of the text — the force and delicacy with which he simultaneously sweeps the play along and lights a fire underneath each of its actors — turns two hours and thirty five minutes into “Once upon a time…” He’s the kind of theatrical storyteller whose tales you long to sit through again immediately, even as the curtain comes down. Along with plays and musicals, Sher has an impressive opera resume, and that kind of elegant, fluid but formidable maestro’s hand is evident here. Miriam Buether’s splendid set conjures, as its shell, something like an old abandoned factory or warehouse — the kind of place that kids love to play in and that grown–ups call dangerous, or the kind of place that’s left in dying towns full of discontented people where old industries are disappearing and old beliefs are digging in their heels.
Inside this evocative frame, pieces of the courtroom and the town glide in and out, walls and porches and roofs and the dense, leafy limbs of southern trees appear and vanish with a mesmerizing, almost dreamlike rhythm. Sher works like a conductor, expertly orchestrating the space so that the story can spring from it fleet–footed and without hindrance. With his designers, he goes big but he doesn’t go overboard. Ann Roth’s costumes are spot–on and free of frills, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is deliberate and painterly — single shafts across the space are enough to make the breath catch — and Adam Guettel has composed beautifully understated original music that soars when it finally needs to. Sher and his team have assembled a serious, exhilarating playground, as rich with imaginative potential as it is with detail. After all, the modular nature of the production’s landscape — the way Buether’s set comes together and breaks apart again, its walls porous, its edges unfinished — speaks to its real setting: Scout’s memory. A place of inquisitive reconstruction, of images collected and fit back together across time — because of course the Scout who tells us about the summer of 1935 is a palimpsest. The narrator and the author, the kid detective and the grown, still searching woman.
Like all children, Scout and Jem learn the world through both adventure and osmosis. One of the play’s most chilling moments comes when the battered, poisoned Mayella takes the stand and, pushed hard by Atticus to point at the real culprit in the room — her father — she explodes like a homemade bomb, scattering atrocious racist shrapnel everywhere. Her rant against Tom is taken word for word from a screed we’ve heard Bob Ewell make to Atticus, and her mad eyes glisten with the toxic satisfaction of having a creed to cling to, something that someone in this world has cared enough to repeat in her presence. Mayella has been taught — not carefully, perhaps, but taught all the same — and her schooling has been at the hands of a monster.
Meanwhile, Scout’s been learning to look for humanity even in the most irredeemable places. She defuses a bomb of her own when she and Jem follow Atticus one night to the jail where Tom is being held — and where, Atticus hears, Bob Ewell his headed with a lynch mob. Sitting outside the cell door armed only with a reading lamp (that’s Atticus all over: enlightenment will prevail), the lawyer tries to fend off the gang of hooded thugs with reason, but it’s Scout’s surprise emotional appeal that wins, if only for that night. She recognizes one of the men, despite his hood, as Mr. Cunningham (Wolohan), a poor farmer whom Atticus has been helping practically gratis to fight the entailment on his land. Keenan–Bolger is gentle and riveting as she addresses the bulky, shamefaced man — Wolohan also plays Boo Radley, and there’s something fascinating in Scout’s eventual clear–eyed seeing of both men, the coward and the hidden hero. As she faced him down, speaking from real kindness and concern, incapable of the kind of condescension that these men see in Atticus, I shed my first tears of the evening. They were far from the last.
Perhaps it is, in part, Keenan–Bolger’s performance — and those of Daniels and Pullen, Akinnagbe and Jackson — that leave me unable to rest entirely easy in the notion that decency has no more place in the world, that, like Atticus’s linen suit, it’s a white luxury, a prim roadblock on the way to true liberation. There’s bravery and dignity in every one of these actors, and there’s also generosity: Their characters, like Jem or Calpurnia, might believe that Atticus’s brand of civility goes too far and does too much collateral damage, but their very essences as performers speak to a kind of moral rightness that’s not disassociated from compassion and from kindness. In writing about the development of his Atticus, Sorkin connected the character’s mindset to Trump’s infamous characterization of the deadly events of August 2017 in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. (You know — “very fine people on both sides.”) I get Sorkin’s allusion: It was a hot–take–y way to make his point. But I believe it’s dangerous to connect a piece of bad–faith political drivel out of the mouth of someone with a track record of heinous corruption and criminal self–interest with the honest efforts of a person of integrity who’s trying to remember that the world is made up of human beings. Some of those human beings are Bob Ewells or Donald Trumps. Some are Mr. Cunninghams. Some are Tom Robinsons or Scouts. And plenty are somewhere in between. “There’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ’em,” says Maycomb’s sheriff, the dry Heck Tate (Danny McCarthy), to Atticus, when Bob Ewell finally meets his bloody end. “Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it took to shoot ’em.” “Oh no,” Calpurnia replies, her eyebrow perpetually raised, “they’re worth the bullet.”
It’s a laugh line, and we feel good laughing — because Bob Ewell is about as irredeemable as they come. But I can’t help hearing the sheriff’s same words coming out of the racist abuser’s mouth. Whom would he be referring to? Tom? Atticus? What would we make then of the easy pronouncement that some people deserve to be put out of our misery?
“All rise,” Scout repeats throughout the play, and on the wings of Sher’s direction and his outstanding ensemble of actors, the production does rise. Ultimately, it rises above Sorkin’s fashionably contemporary polemic on privileged, blinkered white civility — which is both a real phenomenon and, at least from where I stand, not cause enough to abandon empathy in the pursuit of right action. Sher and his company have crafted something of breathtaking grace and poignancy, and have laid open Sorkin’s telling of the story. They fill out what could veer towards cleverness or dogmatism with breath and nuance and soul, enabling to walk away exhilarated and uncertain, questioning both ourselves and a story we’ve long thought we knew.
Ever since Gregory Peck, the Tom Hanks of his moment, starred in the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, the small–town lawyer Atticus Finch has been a symbol of American decency. Not unlike Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, he’s been an emblem of how ignorance can only be banished through empathy. If you wanted to dismantle the systemic racism of the American South, argued the avuncular Atticus with every fiber of his genial being, you should do so by doing your job, having patience, sticking to the facts, working doggedly within the system and, above all, by being willing to walk a step or two in each individual’s shoes.
Under his worldview — dominant in America of the early 1960s — even the most deplorable white supremacists among us have the potential to come around. If they are made to feel understood.
Doesn’t fly so well today, does it?
Yet until now, Christopher Sergel’s loyal dramatic adaptation of Mockingbird — which I’ve reviewed a lot over the years — is the only authorized stage version that ever has existed. As in the film, the dramatic climax of that script occurs when the beaten down African–American citizenry of Lee’s semi–fictional Depression–era Maycomb, Ala., rise to their feet as Atticus walks by, thus denying agency to the very people most impacted by the horrors of the sham rape trial that results in the conviction of an innocent black man. By the end of the courtroom drama, Atticus’s daughter Scout, through whose eyes we view this story, has realized she is the daughter not just of a country lawyer, but of a dogged all–American hero.
Aaron Sorkin’s genuinely radical and thoroughly gripping new Broadway adaptation of this iconic novel — which opened Thursday night at the Shubert Theatre with Jeff Daniels in the starring role — has no truck with the heroic image of Atticus, his wide–eyed daughter Scout and the famous Finch briefcase, a stand–in for the slow march toward justice, all striding together into a new American dawn. No siree. Sorkin has written a Mockingbird that fits this riven American moment. And the director, Bartlett Sher, has felt little need to assuage with sentimentality.
Daniels interprets Atticus as carrying an unexplained sadness, a sense of personal dread that chills his relationships, even with his own children. Where Peck (and any number of other actors over the years) viewed Atticus’s value system as immutable and lived with confident rectitude, Daniels treats him as a weary, unknowable Homeric traveler, slowly realizing that he has no adequate tools to fully fight the Jim Crow hydra, capable of rearing up at any moment and taking down our fragile American democracy.
Even if the fundamental story, especially the courtroom dialog, remains much the same, Sorkin has turned Mockingbird into a deconstruction of Finch’s core philosophy — that minds must be changed through considerate understanding. And in so doing, of course, he’s homed in on the great divide among progressives — do you converse with and try to understand the “deplorables,” if only for practical purposes, or does moral rectitude require you to resist, lest they flood America with variations on the timesless theme of white supremacy?
Sorkin did have to add agency to the African–American characters whom Lee gave little voice. Most notably, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) now takes down Atticus in his own kitchen, acquiring much of his moral centrality, schooling him in what are, for her, the painful personal consequences of his own gentility. And the long–silent Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) now speaks — and not of Atticus as his savior.
How you feel about all this will depend really on whether you’re a Constitutional originalist like Antonin Scalia — a work from 1960 should be interpreted on stage to reflect and respect authorial intent! — or whether you see worth in a living, breathing Mockingbird, a play that surely respects this beloved American novel, but also overhauls, or at least updates, its point of view. I embrace the latter, especially given the evidence that Lee always intended Finch to be more complicated and troubled than the one immortalized by Peck. But it’s a fair debate.
Either way, this new version pulses with relevancy. Now that Sorkin’s adaptation is on the table, it will make its predecessor seem dated at best, redundant at worst. It has the capacity to change how America sees this story for good.
Mockingbird now has three narrators switching between childhood memory and their adult selves — Celia Keenan–Bolger’s Scout, as is traditional, Scout’s brother Jem (Will Pullen), and their gay friend Dill (Gideon Glick), who wants nothing more than to be part of Atticus’s orbit, a need that the distracted Finch fails to quickly see. The change is consistent with all of the above, with excellent work by Keenan–Bolger.
But Sorkin sees more hope in the fevered Link Deas (the excellent Neal Huff), one of the only Alabama white citizens with a personal understanding of the pain of racism, and, of course, in Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan) who here teaches Scout a lesson that Atticus cannot conceive — coming to terms with what you fear most about yourself (and your kind) is the only way toward freedom for all.
You’d be hard–pressed to come up with a shrewder choice for the role of Atticus Finch than Jeff Daniels. Daniels has played American vile (Terms of Endearment) and American vacuous (Dumb and Dumber), but he may be best at American virtue. Not the one–dimensional superhero variety, however; the wholesome qualities he projects are those of a person capable not only of action, but also of reflection. His gift for evoking tolerance is wrapped in charisma.
This attribute comes in extremely handy for all concerned in playwright Aaron Sorkin’s lucid, lump–in–the–throat new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which had its official opening Thursday at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. Preserving it as a good vs. evil story of Southern white injustice in the era of Jim Crow, Sorkin has added other virtues — in particular, more forceful personalities for the two major black characters: Calpurnia, Atticus’s housekeeper, played with winning irascibility by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Tom Robinson, the falsely accused defendant, in the haunting embodiment here of Gbenga Akinnagbe.
It’s useful to have an actor of a certain gold–plated integrity like Daniels when you take on a piece as deeply embedded in the American consciousness as To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is still taught virtually everywhere, even though its sensibility is paternalistic by contemporary standards: It puts on a pedestal — and the movie version, even more so — a white knight who selflessly fights for the oppressed. Lee’s narrative also tends to treat the submissive black people of Maycomb County, Ala., as all–too–grateful beneficiaries, if that’s the right word, of Atticus’s generous spirit.
And there’s something that may now feel too comfortably tailor–made for middle–class consumption, in the demonization of the story’s destitute, uneducated white accusers. They cruelly doom an innocent black man and exist on the extreme fringe of a white society run through with racism.
To build a play in 2018 on these notions requires a writer like Sorkin who can toggle between the radically different mind–set of 1934, when the story takes place; 1960, when the novel was published; and today. And if a decision is made that Atticus is the evening’s touchstone, then having an actor who effortlessly conveys a bedrock fair–mindedness, who entreats us to a belief in our own better natures, is essential. Sorkin reinforces the necessity of a towering Atticus by shifting the perspective away from his daughter, Scout, whose narration defines the voice of the novel and the 1962 movie version. On Broadway, Sorkin has Scout, in the person of adult actress Celia Keenan–Bolger, share the storytelling duties with her older brother, Jem (Will Pullen), and their best friend, Dill (Gideon Glick). For the way in which the device underlines how much of the play revolves around Atticus, Sorkin might as well have changed the bird in the title to “Finch.”
This proves to be a good thing for a big, conventional Broadway play with across–the–board appeal and the potential — rare these days, for a nonmusical — to run for years. Director Bartlett Sher has assembled a terrific cast, with juicy turns for such actors as Dakin Matthews (as the courtroom wise man, Judge Taylor); Frederick Weller (portraying Bob Ewell, the lowdown varmint–father of the accuser); and Jackson, a Tony nominee shoo–in for her careful externalizing of Calpurnia’s bristling dignity.
Deserving of special praise is Erin Wilhelmi, for her turn as the pitiful Mayella, who accuses Tom of rape but is really the victim of her father’s abuse. Keenan–Bolger, Pullen and Glick prove impressive, too, under Sher’s meticulous guidance, as they subtly gearshift from childlike to grown–up and back again.
And so rather than Scout’s rite of passage, the play is Atticus’s, as he is wrenched from his faith in the goodness of humankind toward a more sober assessment of the limits of human decency. The sense of the insidiousness of racism in the South, and the hypocrisy that the play suggests still lingers, is encapsulated by comments like those of supposed town drunk Link Deas (Neal Huff), who observes that “when horror comes to supper, it comes dressed exactly like a Christian.”
Tom’s trial, which becomes the focus of the second half of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, is a thread of the stage production from start to finish. Miriam Buether’s set, encased in the decaying walls of a courthouse, efficiently accommodates the “wagons” that roll on and off, transporting the porch and dining room of Atticus’s house. Courtroom tables and benches are whisked on and off, too, though the jury box always remains vacant: Are the absent jurors the ones for whom the audience sits in judgment? Or are we meant to think of ourselves as filling those empty seats?
To Kill a Mockingbird leaves no question about who the angels are in Maycomb County and who are not, although Atticus even has it in his empathy–drenched heart to offer up a word or two of compassion for a horror like Bob Ewell. The thing is, when these words are uttered by Jeff Daniels, you’re inclined to a conviction that kindness in the world is still possible.
Jeff Daniels plays small–town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of the seminal Harper Lee novel about the festering racial divide in the Deep South.
“We can’t go on like this,” urges Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch toward the end of Aaron Sorkin’s fine–grained stage retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird. “We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding.” Those plaintive words, spoken about the cancerous racial inequality in 1930s Alabama, land with a visceral gut punch in 2018, all too clearly reflecting the ugly rise of the alt–right across a nation bitterly torn by the political dissemination of fear and hatred. It’s to Sorkin’s credit that he lets the contemporary parallels emerge naturally, without hitting us over the head, in a transfixing act of theatrical storytelling graced by exceptional ensemble acting.
Perhaps the most notable achievement of this thoughtful adaptation, and Bartlett Sher’s meticulously calibrated Broadway production, is that it takes Harper Lee’s 1960 novel — a modern American classic that pretty much all of us know either from studying it in high school or watching the outstanding 1962 film version — and makes us hang on every word as if experiencing the story for the first time.
Sorkin, Sher and their estimable cast work together to give every significant figure on the stage a distinct identity without a whiff of cliché. That nuanced revivification of familiar characters is matched by a haunting sense of time, place and community, and yet the bridge to our own era is implicit. This is not starchy masterpiece theater, it’s very much alive and emotionally impactful.
Even the riskiest choices pay off, such as having Atticus’ children, the book’s six–year–old narrator Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Celia Keenan–Bolger) and her older brother Jem (Will Pullen), as well as their visiting friend Dill Harris (Gideon Glick), played by adults. That potential disconnect dissolves within the first scene, instead yielding a beautiful duality that allows the play to unfold both as a story of children having their eyes opened to the cruelty of the world, and of those same figures as adults, reflecting back with sadness on the loss of innocence. The thematic emphasis on kindness and decency in the face of stark injustice is deeply moving.
One of the works that put Sorkin on the map as a writer was A Few Good Men, so it should be no surprise that he’s adept at constructing a taut courtroom thriller with fiery speeches. He weaves the climactic trial throughout the story, calling the first witness just 10 minutes into the play. The majority of the audience knows how it will end for the defendant Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Nonetheless, you find yourself holding your breath as his fate is decided, your eyes stinging with tears.
The other structural shift is the disclosure, early in the play, of the death of racist redneck Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), father of alleged rape victim Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi). While Scout voices her skepticism about the official explanation that Ewell fell on his own knife, the doubts surrounding his fate provide a secondary thread of suspense resolved only in the tense final scenes.
Scout, sporting tomboyish dungarees and a hacked–off basin bob, remains at the heart of the story, grappling with the complexities of adult behavior and small–town mentalities. But she shares narrating duties here with Jem and Dill. With their funny, folksy Southern vernacular, they break the fourth wall in ways that draw us in while heightening the theatricality of the presentation.
Designer Miriam Buether has transformed the stage into a vast derelict industrial space in which the principal settings — the courthouse of fictional Maycomb County and the porch of the Finch family home — are assembled before us. A guitarist (Allen Tedder) sits on one side of the stage and an organist (music director Kimberly Grigsby) on the other, playing original accompaniment written by Adam Guettel that helps to sketch the milieu, oil the fluid scene transitions and provide occasional underscoring. The evocative stagecraft extends to Ann Roth’s character–defining costumes and Jennifer Tipton’s exquisitely descriptive lighting.
What remains unseen, along with the jury of 12 white farmers, is the home of Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan), the recluse whom the town gossips have branded as a living ghost likely to murder them in their sleep. To the impressionable kids, that morbid threat has become an obsession; they conjure the windows of Boo’s home with its drawn curtains, and the knotted oak tree outside where mysterious gifts start appearing, making them as real as any physical element of the staging.
Of course the big challenge in tackling To Kill a Mockingbird is to make audiences forget Gregory Peck as widowed lawyer Atticus, an indelible persona carved in stone in Robert Mulligan’s film. Daniels approaches the character not as a monument of unimpeachable morality, but as a prickly man trying hard to teach his children the values of honesty and compassion, of not rushing to judgment even of those fueled by hate. But his tolerance is constantly called into question.
To the adoring Scout, Atticus is virtue and intelligence personified. But to Jem, who already sees himself as a feisty young man ready to take on anyone, his father seems exceedingly meek. It should be noted, however, that Sorkin has made the smart decision to disregard the more flawed Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s earlier draft of Mockingbird, whose 2015 publication was surrounded by controversy.
“You gotta crawl around in another man’s skin ’fore you can really know him,” Atticus tells the children, reminding them that there is fundamental goodness in everyone. Daniels is highly skilled at showing the flickers of self–examination behind the gravitas — while Atticus insists that every last person in Maycomb is to be regarded as their “friends and neighbors,” we see the piercing shadows of doubt in his thinking.
This is especially true in his spiky exchanges with Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the long–serving family maid and the children’s surrogate mother. Her tenderness toward Scout, in particular, is conveyed with touching understatement. As a black woman in the pre–civil rights South, Cal remains true to the period by keeping her views largely to herself. But in her body language and attitudes, the marvelous Jackson shows that she is a friend to Atticus and therefore free to let her exasperation be known, along with her disappointment in his naivety. This gives Cal, like Tom, more substance as a character than in the movie.
Atticus’ position becomes harder to defend after Bob Ewell drops by on what he calls a “fellowship” call. The boozing weasel helps himself to a glass of bourbon before expounding on what he sees as the tragedy of white defeat in the “so–called” Civil War. He then informs Atticus that his fellow Klansmen will not abide race traitors, leaving him with the chilling warning, “One tree, two ropes.” The horrific spectacle of Ewell and his cronies filing down the theater’s aisles, wearing grubby hessian sacks over their heads and brandishing shotguns or chains, as Atticus sits outside the county jail where Tom Robinson is being held overnight, is a shock that ties your stomach in knots. That scene closes the first act on a note of tremendous power.
In subtle shading work that also helps Daniels make the character his own, Atticus has a lot more humor than many will remember, especially in his banter with the kids, to whom he gives back as good as he gets. Sorkin has always excelled at articulating righteous indignation, and there’s certainly no shortage of that in this searing depiction of racial inequality, of bone–deep prejudice and inhumane injustice that resonate loud and clear in a country whose current stewardship tries to make a virtue of incivility. But the tone is defined as much by lightness and warmth, by the gentle teasing of family life in which even anger and incomprehension are tempered by love.
Daniels gives the production a commanding center alongside the heartbreakingly good Keenan–Bolger, so sparky and amusing as Scout strains to understand what’s happening. But this is very much an ensemble piece in which every element is indispensable.
Pullen is constantly puffing himself up to seem bigger and brawnier even though hot–tempered Jem is just 10 when the story begins, while Glick gets many of the laughs as Dill, an endearing, gangly nerd trying to sell a worldlier version of himself to hide his own yearning for familial affection. In one of the play’s gently shattering moments, Atticus considers Dill, seemingly for the first time, telling him, “You have no business being kind, but there you are.” Lee based Dill on her friend Truman Capote, and there are what feel like subdued hints here that the character is gay.
As Tom Robinson, a 25–year–old father of three, Akinnagbe makes a superb Broadway debut, conveying the strength and dignity that have endured despite this hard–working man’s misfortunes, through his clear–eyed gaze or even simply his posture in the courtroom scenes when his back is to the audience.
Playing Judge Taylor, an upright man of the law with a rich vein of off–the–cuff Southern humor, Dakin Matthews is hilarious, while Danny McCarthy makes Sheriff Heck Tate entirely credible in the unexpected role of a fair–minded white lawman in 1930s Mississippi. It’s in these character sketches, as much as in Atticus, that novelist Lee’s ennobling faith in human nature shines through. And the forces working against that faith are illustrated with corrosive feeling in a gorgeous scene with Neal Huff as Link Deas, a witness for the defense widely known as the town drunk, who reveals the bitter lessons of adult life in a quiet moment with Dill.
The mistake that causes Atticus’ carefully laid out case to collapse despite the exculpatory evidence in Tom’s favor is the defendant’s admission of feeling sorry for Mayella, implying a sense of superiority that no white Southern jury of that time will stand for. But the production does show sympathy for poor, dim Mayella, even when she’s angrily parroting Bob Ewell’s racist diatribes. The way the frail–looking Wilhelmi shrinks in fear whenever her volatile father is close by tells us plenty, well before Atticus puts those suspicions into damning words.
Weller is disturbingly effective as an irredeemable snake of a man, while distinguished veteran Phyllis Somerville is a wicked hoot as a different kind of dyed–in–the–wool racist, the scornfully opinionated Mrs. Henry Dubose.
Director Sher has a magic touch with this kind of quintessentially American story and characters, as he’s shown in musicals like South Pacific or plays like August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone or Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy. He locates the integrity, the fallible human dimensions even in familiar archetypes, and he’s at his best when giving them space to breathe on the extended canvas of populous ensemble pieces like this one.
This is theatrical storytelling so assured and involving it’s hard to imagine anyone not being mesmerized. Sorkin has pulled off something quite remarkable by honoring Lee’s novel while remaking its events of more than 80 years ago in terms that speak directly to where we are now.
When Scout, Jem and Dill take the stage in Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, they’re not rolling a tire down the sidewalk or peering into the knothole of some old oak tree. The children — played, with no excuses offered or needed, by adults — appear in what seems to be an empty, dilapidated building, maybe an old courthouse fallen into neglect. Justice itself has become a thing of memory, its paint peeling.
What really happened that night Bob Ewell died, wonders Scout (Celia Keenan–Bolger), the most inquisitive and persistent of the three? Could a man really fall on his own knife? Something about the grim story of that harvest night doesn’t add up, no matter what Atticus or the local newspaper said, and young Miss Finch (is she still young?) wants her brother, her best friend and the audience at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre to reconsider. Everything.
The set–up is a Sorkin masterstroke, perfectly executed by director Bartlett Sher, a dreamy gambit that justifies every liberty this simultaneously revisionist and faithful Mockingbird will take over the next two hours–plus. When, exactly, are the young Finches and their beloved childhood friend reuniting for this exorcism? How long has Scout been pondering that grim evening, when she and her brother were viciously attacked, when their attacker died, when one neighborhood mystery emerged from the shadows and another took its place among the secrets? Weeks? Months?
I’d suggest years. Fifty–eight, to be exact, and what we’re being asked to recall and re–evaluate is not merely an event dreamed up by Harper Lee to cap her landmark 1960 fiction of race, justice, bigotry and faith. Scout and Sorkin and Sher are demanding we reconsider that fiction itself. Our “national novel,” as The New York Times has called it, is the very subject of the new play that bears its name.
With a fine, natural performance from Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch — the most honest man in Maycomb, Alabama, as his daughter Scout remembers him — Broadway’s To Kill A Mockingbird, opening tonight, sets a route for itself that is bound to lose some of those who can’t set aside their loyalties to a cherished book or a movie that can still send shivers with the first few notes of its Elmer Bernstein score.
Resisters do so at their own expense. Sorkin’s shrewd Mockingbird doesn’t demand our exclusive loyalty – my love for the movie, and for Gregory Peck and Mary Badham and Horton Foote and Kim Stanley’s uncredited narration is undiminished, my lesser affinity for the novel neither strengthened nor weakened. What Sorkin does require, though, is an open mind, a willingness to question the things we so admired about Lee’s tale and its characters, to hold their lessons up for scrutiny in an age when so little of what we once took for granted can withstand the heat. He demands no less of his characters, keeping us in good company from start to finish.
Following the brief memory–play preamble on that barren warehouse–looking set, young Jean Louise, Jeremy (Will Pullen) and Charles Baker Harris (Gideon Glick) — Scout, Jem and Dill — are quickly surrounded by the makings of a courtroom (Miriam Buether’s set design is a marvel of efficiency, as a jury box, witness stand, judge’s bench, attorney stations and spectator seats sweep quickly into place. All but the jury box will be filled with people — we never see the men who will decide the fate of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe).
Robinson, of course, is the man who stands falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi). He’s black, she’s white, it’s 1934 Alabama and the lynching is all but accomplished, legal or otherwise.
You know the plot. Scout, Jem and Dill while away a summer that would have been sleepy without the drama and ugliness stirred up by the trial, a local event of outsize proportion that has unleashed a torrent of hate, bile and bigotry that a good man like Atticus didn’t see coming. He doesn’t recognize his own neighbors.
And here we have the first inkling of what Sorkin is up to. The creator of “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” didn’t invent the dark hearts of Maycomb’s townfolk — Lee did. Even in the book (though not the film), cranky old Mrs. Dubose (Phyllis Somerville) does more than call Scout an ugly little girl: She uses vile racial epithets to disparage Atticus for defending Tom, words that so sting and infuriate Jem that he destroys the sickly woman’s prized flower garden.
No, Sorkin didn’t invent that scene, but its prominence here is no more subtle than it should be in drawing an arrow from Maycomb to Charlottesville, from then to now, from the Finch’s unrecognizable neighbors to our very own.
Sorkin hasn’t been quiet about the resemblance of, say, Donald Trump’s “blame on both sides” to Atticus Finch’s “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute.” Though Harper Lee romanticizes Atticus less than memory might have – I suspect Gregory Peck did most of the shaping there – there’s no question that Sorkin pits the other Mockingbird characters against him with a newfound ferocity. Jem considers his father nothing less than a weakling for attempting to understand – or make excuses for – the foul, threatening displays of Bob Ewell, the man who beat and raped his daughter and steered the blame to Tom Robinson. “I could split Bob Ewell in half and God himself would call it a public service,” Jem says heatedly.
Calpurnia, the Finch’s African American housekeeper (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), cuts Atticus no slack either. In perhaps the sharpest divergence from the novel and movie, Cal is given a voice here as she verbally dresses down Atticus for his naive faith in the goodness of his neighbors, his conviction that they’ll do the right thing when push comes to shove. They’re racist, sure, but not to the extent of sending an innocent man to jail or worse.
Cal, of course, knows better, and she knows the white community in ways Atticus couldn’t imagine. Mrs. Dubose, Cal says, was a “Negro–hater” even before taking ill, before the morphine stopped easing the pain, before whatever other excuse Atticus has for the old woman’s hatefulness. Cal is barely surprised at the cops’ latest killing of an unarmed black man, and she lets Atticus know, in no uncertain terms, just how blind he is.
As if heading off charges of anachronism or even white–washing the restrictive limits of what a black servant of the era could get away with, Sorkin has Scout remark on Calpurnia’s long history with Atticus — she raised his wife from childhood, and raised her children — and, in a way, raised Atticus — when Mrs. Finch died. Cal and Atticus, says Scout, are like sister and brother.
Letting Cal say what she wants, is the Mockingbird of our collective daydream, the Mockingbird we’re revisiting with our 21st Century notions, and her boldness is as satisfying as the laugh that erupts from Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson at Atticus’ quaint notion of courtroom justice.
Cal and Tom — both winningly portrayed, both full of surprises — aren’t the only characters given bigger life. Dill, played by Glick with immense and lovable charm, becomes the Truman Capote–in–waiting that we know him to be, witty with a feel for the underdog, his zest for life not yet drained. Sorkin slips in a bit of Capote’s own biography — Capote, too, was locked in rooms as his mother went husband–hunting — and Dill’s obvious preference for the company of Jem over Scout hints at the hard times ahead for this boy so out of place and time.
Glick’s buoyant performance is matched by Keenan–Bolger’s purposeful Scout and Pullen’s confused, searching Jem. Scout can be a petulant child; Keenan–Bolger simply plays petulance. The approach works so well that the alternative — child actors — seems a very bad one indeed.
Picking others from the fine secondary cast seems contrary to the ensemble spirit, but, almost at random, there’s Dakin Matthews’ sharply funny Judge Taylor; Wilhelmi’s wispy, pathetic Mayella; Somerville’s hateful Mrs. Dubose; Danny Wolohan’s tender Boo Radley (and conflicted Mr. Cunningham); and Neal Huff’s Link Deas, a book character absent from the movie but offering a surprising viewpoint found no where else in this tale.
By the time Atticus comes to question his own moral code, and Sorkin has us contemplating the limits of tolerance and the boundaries of forgiveness, this Mockingbird has already landed its punches.
Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, courtroom drama that inspired its own courtroom drama, has finally arrived on Broadway. Can it fly? Yes.
Earlier this year, Harper Lee’s estate had sued the production for characterizations thought to deviate from the 1960 novel. The suit was eventually settled and the production allowed to continue. It’s clear that Sorkin has tried to make the story more palatable for 2018 and the parallels between 1930s America and the America of today even more explicit.
Does “To Kill a Mockingbird” require renovation? Yes. A literary classic, it’s a distinctly American story and it is a story that America likes to tell about itself — one that acknowledges inequality and the problems of pluralism, but also suggests an arc that bends toward justice, at however oblique an angle. In a small southern town, a black man, Tom Robinson, stands accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch (played here by Jeff Daniels) is a white man, “a lawyer who gets paid in vegetables”, charged with defending him. Atticus’s children, Jem and Scout, as well as their friend Dill, observe the trial and its inevitable, tragic aftermath.
These experiences teach the children — and Atticus, too — that while evil exists in the world, they must fight that evil with all the goodness they can muster. It’s not such a bad lesson as lessons go, but today its delivery is a problem — an imperiled black body becomes a vehicle for white people’s moral education.
It’s here that Sorkin has most directly intervened, expanding the roles of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Atticus’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), so that the white voices aren’t the only ones heard.
This Mockingbird is a superbly entertaining and handsomely acted event. Sorkin has structured the play around the courtroom drama, which gives the action force and drive. (In Miriam Buether’s set, both the courthouse and Atticus’s house flit in and out of a barn.) And yes, he and Bartlett Sher, a director of real moral seriousness, have included some Sorkinesque walking and talking. That talk is abounding and energetic, especially when delivered by Celia Keenan–Bolger, Will Pullen and Gideon Glick, the actors playing the children.
These actors are adults, one of the productions more neatly theatrical conceits. The effect is never jarring, though the distinction between the children experiencing these events and the adults they become looking back on them is often muddled. The muddle is worthwhile when it allows for Keenan–Bolger’s Scout, a brave and radiant creature of heart and fists, and Glick’s Dill clever and weird and lost.
Of course, Mockingbird rests on Daniels’ shoulders and they are ample. He is convincing and often moving as a man freighted with ideals the rest of the world doesn’t recognize. Still the play insists, often vigorously, in the inherent soundness of the democratic process and the American experiment. In 2018, should Atticus’s faith be more shaken? Should ours?
Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage–worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The ever–likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small–town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, tolerance and decency. Celia Keenan–Bolger, best remembered for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee but grown up now, is smart, funny, and entirely convincing as Scout, Atticus’s precocious 6–year–old daughter and the narrator of the story. The rest of the large and very fine cast perform their parts with all their hearts, under Sher’s impeccably fine–tuned direction.
Mockingbird, beloved all over the world, sold 50 million copies when it was published in 1960, won the most prestigious of literary prizes, inspired an Academy Award–winning film starring Gregory Peck, and is taught in countless school classrooms all over the country. Nonetheless, the novel is constantly under attack by religious, civic, and parents’ groups demanding that it be removed from school libraries and classroom curriculums.
For the most part, these protests have to do with Lee’s liberal and historically accurate use of “the n–word.” (Although it’s startling to hear the word used so often on a Broadway stage, the producers earn points for refusing to sanitize the script.) But broader issues of race and class also continue to fuel complaints.
Watching this show, more faithful than not to its source, you have to wonder what makes the material so incendiary. After all, Lee based her warm–hearted but wide–eyed bildungsroman on her own childhood growing up in the segregated Deep South during the Depression.
The designers have done a beautiful job of conjuring that era without smothering the narrative. The minimalist set by Miriam Buether is composed of largely wooden set pieces that function as mere suggestions of the little town of Maycomb, Alabama. (There are doors and windows, but no walls.) Ann Roth’s dowdy costumes capture the weary look of the clothes country people wore in the 1930s. And leave it to lighting designer Jennifer Tipton to warm everybody up by washing this drab town in tones of golden–brown.
The most solid setting is the porch where Atticus seems to deliver most of his lessons to Scout, her older brother, Jem (Will Pullen, a nice actor playing a nice boy), and their goofy friend, Dill Harris (Gideon Glick), a character Lee based on her friend Truman Capote.
Kind and compassionate, but somehow rugged as a rock in Daniels’ solid performance, Atticus is determined to pass on to the children his own bedrock belief in the nobility of all human beings. “There’s fundamental goodness in all of us,” he says, urging them to be tolerant of others — all others.
That would include the lynch mob that shows up in raggedy Klan masks at one point to do Klan things. “But they’re still good people,” Atticus insists, after the children shame them into an undignified retreat. These days, it’s hard to hear that line, and that facile sentiment, without cringing.
There’s humor of a bitter kind in Sorkin’s script, especially when regaling us with Scout’s artless observations on her casually racist neighbors. Or treating us to the vision of Mrs. Henry Dubose (big cheer for Phyllis Somerville) sitting on her porch and yelling nasty insults (“You ugly little girl!”) at Scout. And there’s humor of a sweeter kind whenever Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, in her glory), Atticus’s black housekeeper, stares him down or gives Scout what–for. In another modest deviation from the novel, she’s allowed a flash of temper (and a contemporary sense of injustice) when a black man meets his death at the hands of a white mob.
The dark heart of the matter is exposed in the dramatic courtroom trial at which Atticus delivers an impassioned defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, the daughter of the town drunk. Both daughter and father are caricatures of Southern trash, but as played by Erin Wilhelmi and Frederick Weller, they eloquently project their own histories of poverty and abuse, of domestic violence bred by generations.
Tom Robinson (a powerhouse performance from Gbenga Akinnagbe), the accused man, is demonstrably innocent and Atticus proves it in court. In another modest diversion from the novel that shouldn’t rile anyone, Robinson is even allowed an angry word in his own defense. Nonetheless, he is found guilty by the jury of racist white farmers, and after being dragged off to jail, dies under the most suspicious circumstances.
This appalling case of racial injustice destroys Scout’s innocence and shatters her father’s belief in the intrinsic goodness of man. And here, finally, we really can see how the play diverges from the novel.
This play belongs to Atticus Finch. He holds the stage and he wins our love. When he’s robbed of his faith in his fellow man, it’s hard to believe he’ll be able to go on. But Scout — the nightingale — is the heart of the book and although she’s lost her innocence, we know she’ll go on.
★★★★★ The not inconsiderable controversy that has surrounded the Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird since it was authorized by the author shortly before her death in early 2016 has been convincingly resolved at the Shubert. Concerns about whether the script by Aaron Sorkin supports or subverts the novelist’s intentions are instantly allayed, with the audience held in rapt attention throughout. This stage Mockingbird is majestically triumphant.
Words are necessarily changed, actions altered, and scenes refashioned for dramatic purpose, yes; but playwright Sorkin — with expert aid from director Bartlett Sher — serves Lee exceptionally well. The soul and conscience of the 1960 novel virtually leap across the footlights, in a manner every bit as strong as they did on the page and in the 1962 motion picture version. The Broadway Mockingbird will likely leave a throb in your heart and a well of tears in your eyes.
Sorkin and Sher begin their play on what turns out to be the precisely right note. A decrepit warehouse–like space is revealed, which is then almost magically (read: theatrically) transformed to each and all of the necessary locales in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression–era summer of 1934. From the first, three children—young Scout, her brother, Jem, and their Penrod–like friend, Dill — take focus, serving as narrators offering a vibrant flashback to the serious events of the preceding months. The fragmented and impressionistic storytelling, built around “big scenes” that stand out in the three childrens’ collective memories, carefully capture the startling impact of Lee’s novel. This is enhanced by the manner in which Sorkin and Sher weave the children into some of the flashbacks as almost ghostly observers.
A major part of this Mockingbird’s spell, right from the beginning, is a second conceit: These children are played, openly and unapologetically, by adult actors. As it turns out, their acting skills allow them to convincingly serve and sustain the play in a manner that three juvenile actors most likely could not. Keenan–Bolger, with a ferociously jutting jaw leading her body across the stage, has determination enough for any six–year–old; and Glick, his body gangly and concave, is a perfect embodiment of the irrepressibly awkward Dill (patterned after Lee’s childhood pal, who grew up to become Truman Capote).
The centerpiece of any representation of Lee’s novel, of course, must be the actor playing Atticus Finch, the small–town lawyer who insists on seeing the best in everyone. Jeff Daniels — whose long career recently brought him back to Broadway with Blackbird — undertakes the role here, and he is remarkable. It’s not that he wipes out the memory of Gregory What’s–His–Name in the motion picture version; it’s simply that Daniels perfectly embodies Atticus Finch, and that’s that.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson (A Raisin in the Sun) adds moral gravity as the housekeeper, somewhat moreso than Calpurnia does in the novel. In 1960 America, there were limits to how noble and well–spoken the novelist could have drawn the character. Standing out among the large cast are Gbenga Akinnagbe (in his Broadway debut) as Tom Robinson, the man on trial; Frederick Weller, vibrantly evil as the repellent Bob Ewell; and Erin Wilhelmi as the victimized Mayella. (Did the author borrow this oversexed, incestuous father–daughter duo from Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, a bestseller published when Lee was 6 and successfully adapted for both stage and screen by the time she was 15?) There are two excellent performances from members of the recent Iceman Cometh cast: Dakin Matthews as the judge who bends over backward to assure a fair trial; and Neal Huff as Link Deas, the town misfit who speaks the truth.
Sher and associates have devised a physical production that augments the play’s aura of fragmented memory. Set designer Miriam Buether does this with high theatrical flair; all the relevant locales are clearly presented, but there seem to be few actual walls other than the jailhouse exterior. Buether, who provided the psychologically compelling scenery for last year’s Three Tall Women, is also currently on the boards with the astounding The Jungle at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
Ann Roth, who has been providing exquisitely realized costumes for stage and screen since the days when giants like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols roamed the Rialto — The Odd Couple, in 1966, was Roth’s eighteenth Broadway show — works her usual magic here. Note the way Scout is dressed in drably colored tomboy garb but with a noticeably newer add–on collar emblazoned with bright red roses. Also consider what is presumably the only courtroom–worthy suit Atticus owns, with trousers that look that they haven’t been pressed since Herbert Hoover was voted out of office. Jennifer Tipton expertly sculpts the many playing areas with light, as she has been doing since the late 1960s. Scott Lehrer does his customarily effective job with the sound design.
It should be noted that Sher has worked almost exclusively, and always successfully, with one set designer, one costume designer, and mostly two lighting designers; the team has done all 11 of Sher’s prior Broadway shows. Mockingbird has jolted him into new collaborations, with rewarding results all around.
Sher has also commissioned an atmospheric incidental score from the estimable Adam Guettel of The Light in the Piazza, played by an onstage organist (at the base of the stage left proscenium) and a guitarist (on stage right). Beneath the dress and wig of that schoolmarmish organist, incidentally, is Kimberly Grigsby, who has electrified musicals like The Full Monty and Spring Awakening from the conductor’s podium.
The magic of Mockingbird, though, rests on the theatrical imagination of Sorkin, who burst into prominence in 1989 with A Few Good Men and has since ensconced himself in screen–and–TV–land with “The West Wing” and The Social Network, among many highlights. He demonstrates here what novelist Lee — who was famously protective of her work — presumably recognized when granting permission for his play. Stage adaptation is just that; not simply transplanting dialogue from page to stage, but refashioning the source material for the very different medium. (In this case, Sorkin uses humor as one of his effective tools.) A relevant comparison can be made with the current Network: The heart of the piece is well conveyed, thanks in part to a bravura performance by the leading man. But the rest of the venture is dramatically uncompelling, leaving us thinking we might as well just watch the movie.
Lee publicly praised Horton Foote when he won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Mockingbird. Contrary to the recent complaints and courtroom wrangling from the late novelist’s literary executor — a small–town lawyer with an apparently limited artistic imagination — one suspects that Harper Lee would be similarly thrilled by the magnificent manner in which Sorkin, Sher & Co. have brought Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley, and the rest to the stage.
★★★★★ “All rise,” a character says early in Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s an instruction common to the courtroom, where much of the play takes place. But as those two words are periodically repeated throughout this extraordinary production, they also become a sort of mantra, an appeal — as plain and direct as any being made on Broadway right now — to our better angels, or whatever it is that elevates minds and souls tested by troubled times or base instincts.
Sorkin is most widely known as a screenwriter; in films such as Steve Jobs, Moneyball and The Social Network and TV’s “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom,” he has crafted verbal scores capturing with rat–a–tat panache the witty conviviality and brutality of the ambitious and privileged. Lee’s novel, one of the most cherished in American literature, presents him with an entirely different milieu: a small Alabama town in 1934, ravaged by the Great Depression, in which community takes precedence over individual aspiration.
As anyone familiar with Lee’s story or the history of the Jim Crow South knows well, the sense of community here is not all–embracing. Not unlike our country today, Maycomb has seen many of its citizens — the men, especially — broken economically and spiritually, their pockets depleted and their pride wounded by not only the market crash but also the lingering fallout of the Civil War. It’s under these fraught circumstances that Tom Robinson, a black laborer, finds himself falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the poor, white daughter of Bob Ewell, as virulent a racist as ever stalked the pages of a middle–school text. The impossible task of summoning angels to rescue Tom falls to middle–aged lawyer and widower Atticus Finch, a name that has become synonymous with nobility as Americans define it, by character rather than class.
In Lee’s book, and the beloved 1962 film adaptation, featuring a screenplay by Horton Foote, the story is relayed to us years later by Scout, Atticus’s daughter, who is turning six when events start unfolding. Sorkin retains the sense of devastated innocence augmented by an older, more worldwise perspective, but adds theatrical punch by having Scout’s older brother, Jem, and Dill, the child they befriend while he’s visiting the neighborhood — all played, under Bartlett Sher’s direction, by adult actors — accompany and embellish her narration, sometimes addressing the audience themselves.
The device is typical of Sorkin’s work here: utterly respectful and faithful in spirit — lest anyone feared otherwise, after an attorney representing Lee’s estate sued the production over an early draft (leading to a counter–suit, then an out–of–court settlement) — while asking us to look forward, and inward, and around us, positing that multi–pronged challenge in the guise of vital, thrilling entertainment. Sher has proven a master of this approach in numerous revivals of American classics, as well as new works; together, the director and playwright allow us to climb inside the skin, as Atticus would put it, of characters representing another time and place, and pace, but seem instantly, sometimes disturbingly accessible.
The casting is better than perfect; it’s revelatory, with each actor serving both the novel’s humane vision and the nuances and, in some cases, adjustments Sorkin has contributed. Jeff Daniels’ magnificent Atticus — a new high–water mark for an actor whose presence makes any play (or film) worth seeing — may strike you as a more natural small–town Southern lawyer than the more patrician (if unforgettable) Gregory Peck. Hardy and a bit gruff, with a perceptible paunch, Daniels’ Atticus isn’t above physically confronting a threatening bigot. But when he speaks to his children about the importance of having empathy for all people, his compassion is as true and as tender as his presence before the court is mighty — and in the latter arena, Sorkin furnishes opportunities for Atticus to express his frustration with the case, the system and even his client in terms that can be more blunt and biting than Lee’s or Foote’s.
Tom and Calpurnia, the Finches’ black housekeeper, are more intimately acquainted with the injustices of that system than any legal scholar could be, and Sorkin gives them more frank and expansive voices as well. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s warm, witty and wise Calpurnia is both a constant source of love and loyalty to Atticus’s family and his sparring partner, contesting in particular his stubborn insistence on looking for the good in everyone.
As Tom, Gbenga Akinnagbe emerges as more than the “quiet, respectable, humble Negro” Lee’s Atticus describes to the jury in his closing argument; Akinnagbe’s gently robust performance captures those qualities, but also Tom’s despair over the intolerance that has doomed him. His candor with Atticus, like Calpurnia’s, is made credible by the trust and fellowship this play’s earthy hero inspires. Tom’s integrity and dignity are thrown into even sharper relief by the bone–chilling malevolence of Frederick Weller’s Bob, and the repression–fueled hysteria of Erin Wilhelmi’s fragile, feral Mayella.
No characters are more central to Mockingbird than the children, of course, and by having Scout share the telling of her tale with Dill and Jem, Sorkin has provided showcases for a trio of superb, youngish actors. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal Scout than the ageless Celia Keenan–Bolger, who imbues the precocious tomboy with all the intensity and wonder you’d expect. Gideon Glick is quirkily charming and moving as the eccentric, brilliant and haunted Dill, a character inspired by Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote, while Will Pullen’s impish Jem wins our hearts as a mischief–maker who is nonetheless undeniably Atticus’s son.
The three remain in almost constant motion, whether at play or in the courtroom, where they are fascinated, appalled observers. Characteristically, Sher enhances the urgency and suspense of the piece in part through physical movement; actors carry parts of Miriam Buether’s handsome, bucolic set, which exudes a sense of resilience and tradition — the Finches’ modest but sturdy home, the large tree that sits resolvedly beside it — that also inform darker features of the story, like the hooded, armed men who find Atticus outside Tom’s jail cell at another key juncture in the children’s disillusionment.
An angel does finally arrive in this Mockingbird, briefly — and too late for Tom — but memorably, as he did in the book and movie. Danny Wolohan plays Boo Radley, the notorious, elusive neighbor the kids have stalked and feared, who emerges as their selfless protector. With his delicate, ghostlike presence, Boo drives home the point that goodness can indeed lurk in unexpected places, and that appearances, be they due to rumor or race, should never figure into judging a man or woman.
Mockingbird’s lessons may seem obvious, but like so many on offer at this moment, they also come across as depressingly timely and necessary. By acknowledging that need in a straightforward, utterly unpretentious manner, accompanied by blazing artistry, Sorkin, Sher and their cast and collaborators have given us a production that feels as urgent and eternal as its source.
The defense never rests in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. That the play exists at all is an act of boldness: Turning Harper Lee’s 1960 novel into a play in 2018 is no easy task.
The hero of the story, as every schoolchild knows, is Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels), a lawyer in rural Alabama in the early 1930s, who bravely defends a disabled black man, Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), against a false accusation of rape. Slow to anger and reluctant to judge — “You never really understand a person,” he says, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”— Atticus is a paragon of that most fabled of American values: decency.
But while To Kill a Mockingbird has a special place in the literature of American civil rights, the book is also now a minefield. As seen through the eyes of his preteen tomboy daughter, Scout (Celia Keenan–Bolger), Atticus is very much a savior, albeit one who can’t perform miracles, in a narrative that has little room for the perspectives of black people beyond the respect and gratitude they show him. At its center is a story about a young woman — Tom’s accuser, Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi) — whose accusations of sexual assault must not be believed. Even more problematic is the scope of Atticus’s magnanimity. It is not just the black skins that he urges his children to walk around in; it is also the skins of the white farmers who try to lynch Tom Robinson before his trial.
That isn’t quite fair to the Atticus of Lee’s book, who dismisses any white man who cheats a black man as “trash.” But it’s a question about which Sorkin’s play seems acutely alert. Having survived a legal challenge from Lee’s estate, which believed that it departed too much from the novel, the play has its guard up. (In a departure from normal procedure, the production did not provide critics with a copy of the script.) The play does not believe that there are fine people on both sides, and it wants to plant a flag on the right one.
“They’re still good people,” Sorkin’s Atticus says of the racists in his town. “They’re still our friends and neighbors.” Sorkin has made the villains — especially the odious Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the accuser’s abusive father — more villainous than ever; factors that might mitigate our revulsion toward the meaner characters, such as illness or extreme poverty, are downplayed. Meanwhile, Atticus’s attitudes are challenged in explicit terms by his truculent young son, Jem (Will Pullen), and by his staunch African–American maid, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), whose role has been beefed up substantially from the novel. When Atticus says, “I believe in being respectful,” Calpurnia is ready with a rejoinder: “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it.” The play’s ambivalent approach to Atticus is satisfying.
The execution is exemplary. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the elegant production is stately but not stodgy; Miriam Buether’s simple set has just enough detail to suggest the outlines of a memory. (Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and Ann Roth’s costumes help flesh it out.) Daniels is a first–rate Atticus: thoughtful, patient, gently authoritative and appropriately troubled by the unchanging world around him. Three excellent adult actors — Keenan–Bolger, Pullen and Glick — play the child characters–cum–narrators without preciousness, and Wilhelmi is heartbreaking as the broken Mayella. The large, adept cast also includes Dakin Matthews as a sympathetic judge, Stark Sands as a canny prosecutor, Danny Wolohan as a frightening recluse and Neal Huff as a man who finds limited cover behind his reputation as a drunk.
Sorkin’s adaptation has moments of old–fashioned power — the playwright knows how to set up a court scene — and others of surprising tenderness, as when he briefly takes the fatherless Dill under his wing. (“You have no business being kind, but there you are,” he tells the boy.) As perhaps befits material that has been a high–school mainstay for decades, this To Kill a Mockingbird has many teachable moments.
The new stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, pairs two first–rate storytellers: Harper Lee, whose 1960 novel about racial injustice in 1930s Alabama became an instant classic, and Aaron Sorkin, whose gift for rat–a–tat dialogue, narrative restructuring and ripped–from–the–headlines plotting gets a full workout here.
Sorkin goes full Sorkin: jettisoning minor characters and plot threads, reordering scenes and dramatically altering familiar characters so that they have new, often unexpected resonance in President Donald Trump’s America. In fact, the creator of A Few Good Men and “The West Wing” has taken so many liberties with the text that a now–resolved lawsuit from Lee’s estate threatened to derail the production altogether.
The biggest point of departure is Atticus Finch, the small–town lawyer and single dad whose moral rectitude was memorably embodied by Gregory Peck in the Oscar–winning 1962 film. Sorkin’s Atticus is not the untarnished paragon of virtue of the novel and film, but a more complicated character who owes much to the edgier Atticus depicted in Lee’s posthumously published novel “Go Set a Watchman,” which scholars regard as a rough draft for “Mockingbird.”
As embodied by Jeff Daniels, this Atticus is a well–educated Southern gentleman with a native intelligence but also a kind of aloof prickliness. He harbors some racist beliefs, verbally scraps with his African American maid and nanny, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), and is not above physically tangling with Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the menacing local Klansman who threatens the Finch family when Atticus agrees to represent the black man (Gbenga Akinnagbe) whom Ewell has falsely accused of raping his daughter.
Unlike in the novel, the trial is drawn out over multiple scenes, allowing Sorkin to build some suspense, foreshadow themes of justice and fairness, and to pivot between the personal and the political while juggling more than a dozen characters.
Sorkin makes the most of presenting Mockingbird as a memory play with Atticus’ tomboy daughter, Scout (Celia Keenan–Bolger), narrating with Sorkinian interruptions by her brother, Jem (Will Pullen), and their friend Dill Harris (Gideon Glick). It’s a risk to cast adult actors as young children, but here the gambit works — particularly since the sensational Keenan–Bolger and Glick capture the guilelessness of youth even as they register a dawning understanding of the adult world’s inequities and hypocrisies.
Sorkin’s reworking of Lee’s plot frequently lets us cast a fresh eye on a familiar story we remember well from school. For instance, he plays up the novel’s underlying class issues: Most of the townsfolk in Maycomb, Alabama, are mistrustful of “so–called intellectuals” like Atticus whose efforts to be polite, by addressing Ewell’s daughter as Miss on the witness stand for instance, are dismissed as mocking condescension.
He also deploys Atticus’ familiar exhortation to try to understand other people’s perspectives — “to climb in his skin and walk around in it” — to challenge our modern red state vs. blue state divide, as well as the lengths to which we should extend tolerance to people whose views we disagree with, or even condemn.
When Calpurnia calls out Atticus for demanding that his kids respect n–word–dropping neighbors, he meekly replies, “I don’t want them hating people they disagree with.” While Calpurnia barely spoke in previous iterations of the story, Richardson–Jackson’s version is decidedly more woke. And faster than you can say “there are very fine people on both sides,” she forces her boss off to reconsider whether he really wants Scout and Jem to spend any time walking around in the skin of Klansmen. Scout emerges as the conscience of the story — as well as its heart.
Sorkin succeeds in getting us to rethink an American classic without any fussiness or archness. Director Bartlett Sher, who’s best known for his Tony–winning work on big musicals like South Pacific and My Fair Lady, strikes the right balance between the epic and the intimate.
And he smartly mimics the breakneck pace of Sorkin’s film and TV projects, cramming Lee’s large and sprawling story in a production that runs just over two and a half hours but seem to just fly by. This To Kill a Mockingbird is crackerjack entertainment.
When I heard that Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird featured changes to Harper Lee’s beloved story, I thought how dare they mess with a masterpiece. The kids’ roles played by adults! The Atticus Finch character flawed! Well, it turns out, far from killing the essence of the great work, this excellent company achieved the unimaginable: they enhanced it.
It’s a big production with 24 actors and yet it feels wholly intimate. Director Bartlett Sher staged the play with an eloquent simplicity. The story, set in a fictional Alabama town during the Depression is centered mostly in a courthouse and front porch of the home where Atticus Finch lives with his two children, Scout and Jem.
In the story, a black man, Tom Robinson, is unjustly accused of beating and raping a young white woman. Atticus, a respected lawyer in town agrees to defend Tom knowing that a black man in the South, no matter how innocent, wouldn’t stand a chance. In the book, Atticus is a heroic figure throughout, insisting that people are innately good, despite their moral failings.
The play departs from the book in the way that Atticus initially refuses to acknowledge the inherent evil in racist behavior. But he evolves over the course of the play to understand that bigotry is indefensible. That reckoning comes through his own children and two black characters, Tom played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Atticus’ housekeeper Calpurnia. Both are given much bigger voices in the story and it makes sense in this era to allow them to speak up.
Despite my doubts, the adults playing the kids manage to pull it off magnificently. Celia Keenan–Bolger’s Scout is revelatory. It’s a demanding role with constant narration. She, along with Will Pullen as Jem and Gideon Glick as Dill are entirely believable without ever crossing the line into preciousness.
And then there’s Jeff Daniels with the nearly impossible task of taking that Gregory Peck role and making it [the role] his own. But he does, movingly conveying Atticus’ strength, warmth and moral conviction.
As much as I love the book, its depiction of race relations is very much of its time. The casual use of the “n” word for example is so tough to hear, and yet it’s all up there on that big stage. But what makes the adaptation so successful is the masterful finesse that turned the 60–year–old literary classic into a most poignant drama, still of its time, but also now very much of our time as well.
The marquee at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre blasts in big block letters “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” But all it takes is some slingshot dialogue to reveal that the new blockbuster Broadway adaptation belongs to Aaron Sorkin.
The program spells out that this top–flight production, which had its official opening Thursday under the rustically elegant direction of Bartlett Sher, is indeed a “new play by Aaron Sorkin.” It’s a masculine take on one of the greatest novels of girlhood ever written.
The Boo Radley games played by Scout, her older brother Jem and their regular summer buddy Dill, all of whom are dying to get a peek at their reclusive bogeyman neighbor, are held off for more important concerns. Sorkin leaps into what he believes is the heart of the story: the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a poor white woman.
Legal and ethical questions predominate in Sorkin’s retelling. Scout (a vivid Celia Keenan-Bolger) retains her narrator role to a degree, though the story’s emphasis shifts to her widower father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer who has agreed to defend Tom in a tinderbox case he knows will have dangerous repercussions for all involved.
The role that Gregory Peck turned into a moral beacon in the classic 1962 film is played by Jeff Daniels with a shambling, heavy–hearted ambivalence. It’s a stirring, thoroughly original portrayal of a character too shadowed with doubt to be heroic yet too determined to do the right thing not to maintain our admiration, even if at times he seems hopelessly naïve.
But what was once a bildungsroman about a rowdy, independent–minded tomboy whose moral education involves coming to terms with the hypocrisies and willful blindness of the adults around her in Depression–era Alabama is now the story of an idealistic attorney forced to confront the limitations of the law as an instrument of justice in a racist society.
Let the accusations of appropriation fly. Sorkin, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Social Network and multiple Emmys for “The West Wing,” can take the heat. His reworking moves as confidently as it speaks. To adapt a high school classic to the stage one must take ownership, submissiveness is a recipe for staleness. Quarrel all you want with the liberties that are taken, Sorkin, Sher and an impeccable cast have created something provocatively fresh.
Controversy, in any event, is unavoidable with this landmark American novel. To Kill a Mockingbird tells a fundamental story about the way race and justice are inextricably bound in America. Readers have no choice but to approach the material through the prisms of their own histories. Lee herself was divided about her own book, as revealed by the controversial 2015 publication of Go Set a Watchman, an abandoned earlier work that shows the characters of Mockingbird in a harsher light.
Rereading Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner in 2018 is a vastly different experience from when I first encountered the book in the early 1980s. The times have changed and so have I. But one thing remains constant: our shortsightedness. No one ever commands a total view.
Perhaps that insight is behind the decision to wrestle away some of Scout’s storytelling authority. Even minor assertions are contested by Jem (Will Pullen) and Dill (Gideon Glick), as Scout retrospectively ponders the momentous events that almost cost Jem and her their lives.
One matter she keeps coming back to is how Bob Ewell (an appropriately slithering Frederick Weller) could have fallen on his knife during his attack on Jem and her. She understands he was seeking revenge for the courtroom humiliation Atticus inflicted on him and his daughter Mayella (a credibly intense Erin Wilhelmi), the young woman who falsely accuses Tom of raping her. But there’s something about his death that just doesn’t make sense.
As the play jumps back in time, it becomes clear that it’s not the incident itself but the coverup that Scout finds so haunting. She’s desperate to understand Atticus’ journey from idealist to realist, as though the answer to all the societal questions bedeviling her lie in figuring out this one mystery.
Atticus’ belief in the inherent goodness in people is challenged by characters who are given new agency by Sorkin. Calpurnia (played by the formidable LaTanya Richardson Jackson) stays mostly within the bounds of a black housekeeper of the period, but she lets Atticus know that his faith in the town is misplaced.
Evil exists in polite, sleepy Maycomb. (The Ku Klux Klan is made up of the same folks who shop at the hardware store on Saturday and fill the pews on Sunday.) Atticus’ insistence that you can’t judge a person till you crawl inside his skin and walk around in it is simplistic. Empathy is a weak defense against murderous, irrational hatred.
The actors communicate truths that transcend time: Jackson’s Calpurnia knows her resentments are legitimate but being right isn’t the same thing as being smart. Daniels’ Atticus needs no one to tell him he’s no white shining knight, but he wants to set an example for his children without giving up on his community.
The portrayal of Tom Robinson is more straightforward. Poised and contained, Gbenga Akinnagbe imbues the character with a dignified gravity that is more Sidney Poitier than Brock Peters (the actor who brought such astonishing physical anguish to his film portrayal of Tom).
Sher keeps a tight hold on the emotion of the story, preferring the pressure to build slowly and steadily, like the organ music Adam Guettel has composed for the production. One notable eruption, when Mayella appeals to the jury to convict Tom for the safety of white women everywhere, the histrionics are so troubling that one can only savor the tart irony of Dakin Matthews’ Judge Taylor, whose reactions provide a running commentary on Southern duplicity.
The jury box is empty, leaving audience members to imagine the identities of these ordinary citizens, who hold in their hands the fate of an innocent man. The weight of their judgment is made all the more staggering by their invisibility. (Theater may lack the velocity of film, but it can do wonders with shorthand.)
The character of Dill is enlarged, but this might simply be because Glick is such an eccentrically mesmerizing performer. That the roles of the children are played by adult actors isn’t at all an issue. Keenan-Bolger has everything you could want in a Scout — the honeyed drawl, the scrappy temperament, the ice–pick gaze. She could play this role for another 20 years and no one would notice her age.
Scout is the medium through which we receive the novel. The story goes beyond her character, but it’s through her precocious deciphering of contradictory signals that we gain a picture of the Maycomb world she’s having so much trouble understanding.
Daniels is the centerpiece of this production, and it’s Atticus’ conscience that drives the drama. But even when the focus moves away from him, my attention remained gripped by the high level of the stagecraft.
The clean fluidity of Sher’s staging, which makes the most of Miriam Buether’s impressionistic scenic design, Ann Roth’s milieu–nailing costumes and the elegiac glows of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, is an unmitigated pleasure. And as the organist (who’s positioned across the stage from a guitarist) turns the play into an American mass, I found myself tuning in somberly to Atticus’ dilemma — the dilemma of a man who is better than his society but still a product of it.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird will gratefully always be with us. This is Sorkin’s version and it finds ways through Atticus’ character to speak directly to our troubled times about the inseparability of race and justice in America. I look forward to future productions from female and African American perspectives that can match this level of theatrical excellence.
No one owns To Kill a Mockingbird, not even Lee, who died in 2016, or her estate, which fought to protect the book from Sorkin’s bolder encroachments before agreeing to a settlement. The book is ours to wrestle over as we struggle to realize the democratic ideals our imperfect natures and unresolved history have so far kept beyond reach.
The act of bringing Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel to Broadway began with its own kind of courtroom drama: Executors of Lee’s estate objected vehemently to certain liberties famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wanted to take with the material and brought a lawsuit; at one point, producer Scott Rudin even proposed staging the script in full for a federal judge.
Compromises were made, and crises averted; the piece now features significantly larger speaking roles for two African–American characters, among other things, and a more contemporary tone overall. But does the world really need a woke Mockingbird?
The answer to that question, after seeing the lush new production at New York’s historic Shubert Theatre, feels like an impressed, qualified yes. While Lee’s vivid snapshot of the Great Depression–era Deep South is its own valuable time capsule, the shifting sands of race and justice in America (and all the things that haven’t changed, depressingly, in the more than eight decades since) is well served by at least some new perspective. And the Emmy– and Oscar–winning Sorkin — ratatat duke of dialogue, reigning king of the walk–and–talk — does feel like a smart choice to drag it all into the 21st century.
Now, the trial of a black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) accused of raping the young, white Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi) has become the play’s framing device, and characters often remark explicitly and openly on the baked–in disparities of “colorblind” justice in Maycomb, Alabama. In To Kill A Mockingbird Sorkin is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the narrative overall.
Here, Jeff Daniels’ Atticus Finch is more fiery and rumpled, less steady and stentorian than Gregory Peck’s famous film portrayal, while his daughter Scout (a sweetly plucky Celia Keenan–Bolger) and son Jem (Will Pullen) and their neighborhood friend Dill (Gideon Glick) are played by grown adults with child–like affect and innocence. The family’s beloved housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), regularly challenges her employer and spars with him verbally; she also, tellingly, gets the literal last word in the play, not counting a sort of Greek–chorus epilogue.
Tony–nominated scenic designer Miriam Buether has built an ingenious, elegant set that moves seamlessly between the Finches’ home and the courtroom, and director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, My Fair Lady) keeps the plot machinations moving at a smooth clip.
There’s still something firmly classic about Mockingbird; it’s essentially a white–savior story where the savior fails, as nobly as he can. It’s a time–honored tale, skillfully told.
However you feel about Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which opened on Broadway tonight, you are most certainly not in Harper Lee’s original setting of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1933 to 1935; or the Maycomb as imagined by director Robert Mulligan when he made Lee’s 1960 novel into the 1962 movie, starring Gregory Peck as the unimpeachably principled and upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch.
Jeff Daniels plays Finch on stage; the two men share a predilection for light–colored suits but little else. Peck won an Oscar for his role, and the book and film remain fiercely cherished American classics; pop–cultural landmarks about racism, prejudice, and injustice released in the Civil Rights era. This, amazingly, is its first ever production on Broadway.
Full disclosure: This critic is not American. My U.S. friends speak about reading the book aged around 12, or of seeing the film, some in the early 1960s, and how impactful it was. Which is to say: My cultural–emotional hard–wiring watching the play may be different to many reading this and seeing the play.
This play significantly puts Atticus Finch’s liberalism on trial alongside the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), the black man charged with rape whom Finch represents.
There is no mention of the racism that Lee imagined Atticus possessing in “Go Set a Watchman,” published amid great hype and controversy in 2015, but the play represents another sharp dent in the cultural hero’s moral armor. (One of its producers is Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, which owns The Daily Beast.)
This Atticus, these black characters, remain in 1933, but have been imagined for us in an era of Ferguson, Michael Brown, police violence, and Trump Administration–stained prejudice.
Sorkin’s casting anew is not total, and it takes place alongside some well–placed memory jabs evoked through Miriam Buether’s period design, featuring sections of houses on cinder blocks, and a circular–shaped courtroom. The play doesn’t have full sets, but elements of sets that whizz up from and across the stage.
The child characters (Scout and Jem, Atticus’ children, and Dill) are played by adults, which worked fine for me. You are thankful for the ball of energy and inquiry that is Celia Keenan–Bolger’s Scout. Keenan–Bolger is a wonderful guide for the play’s audience, just as she is in the book and the film. Keenan–Bolger, just like the movie’s Mary Badham, projects a fierce self–possession, a severe wedge–bob, a genderless defiance and derring–do where a girlish sweetness never was, and a fierce loyalty to her father which saves both his and Tom Robinson’s lives.
One of the sharpest moments featuring Keenan–Bolger sees her patrolling the courtroom, a narrative ghost, empathetically observing the pain of Robinson’s accuser Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), this past her own anger, our anger, at what Scout (and we) presume to be Mayella’s lies at the service of her racist and violent father Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller).
Atticus’ liberal pieties and principles are interrogated, rather than placed on a pedestal. Both his black housekeeper Calpurnia (an excellent LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and his son Jem (Will Pullen) question exactly where Atticus’ high–minded belief in people’s essential goodness and the necessity of behaving properly — even towards those who mean you and your loved ones harm — leaves him and those around him.
Calpurnia repeats Atticus’ words back to him with curdling disdain, Jem tries to rouse his father from his good–guy somnambulance.
Daniels’ Atticus is folksy and ruffled, without Peck’s idealistic though hardened eye. He keeps his head down. He doesn’t want to confront anything. Daniels plays him as a man in eternal retreat, even if he is confronting racism in its most dangerous form. Daniels’ Atticus is there and also absent, while everyone around him wants him to look up, be present, take a more obvious stand.
Sorkin’s redrafting gives, where the book and film do not, some agency and a voice to Calpurnia and Robinson. The black characters are no longer silent and acted–upon observers of the injustice and prejudice aimed against them. Jem is also given a more galvanizing role; he cannot believe his father’s passivity, indeed is disgusted by it.
The third of the children’s band, Gideon Glick’s Dill Harris, is transformed into a camp young man, with a “I–do–declare” breathiness. Dill’s sexuality was never alluded to in the novel, and in the film he is more a curious child, but what Glick and Sorkin perhaps imagine here is the young Truman Capote, Lee’s friend and her inspiration for Dill.
The unstated isolation of a possibly gay young man gives the character a moving anchor for his relationship with Atticus, a father figure he is all too ready to support and emulate.
Dill is almost alone in this hero worship. All the questions of Atticus you ever wanted to ask are asked; a character is interrogated for his lacking fire retrospectively.
Yet at two key moments Sorkin’s Atticus is given a fresh edge and ballsiness in both the courtroom and outside of it. It is right to ask questions of Atticus Finch. It is right to break the enforced silence of To Kill a Mockingbird’s black characters.
Watching this To Kill a Mockingbird, you know why Sorkin did it, and why he felt he had to do it. A modern theatre audience would feel extremely uncomfortable, watching a To Kill a Mockingbird with all its narrative antiquities. Given the present political and cultural climate, the painful injustices of the play feel acute.
Had things turned out differently, one of the best plays in town might have debuted at a downtown courthouse instead of Broadway.
Soon after it was announced that a new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s seminal 1960 Southern Gothic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, penned by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”), was heading straight to Broadway, Lee’s estate sued the production, arguing that Sorkin’s adaptation was not true to the spirit of the book and its characters.
After some additional legal drama (including a transfer of venue from Alabama to New York and an offer to present the play live in court), the parties settled, and the high profile production (which has direction by Bartlett Sher and stars Jeff Daniels as attorney Atticus Finch) has come to Broadway, where it is already proving to be a box office hit.
As the prior proceedings suggest, this is not a straightforward adaptation of the novel (which has sold 40 million copies and continues to be assigned to high school students), and it is also unlike the 1962 film adaptation (which is best remembered for Gregory Peck’s crisp, Oscar–winning performance as Finch).
Although the plot (about the coming of age of a young girl in 1930s rural Alabama as she is exposed to a particularly cruel case of racial injustice) remains relatively intact, Sorkin has adapted the book with an eye toward dramatic structure, character development and contemporary cultural relevance.
Scout (Celia Keenan–Bolger, observant and urgent), along with her brother Jem (Will Pullen, full of anxious energy) and friend Dill (Gideon Glick, quirky and sensitive), are played by young adults, who jointly narrate while exploring what happened in their past. The play also opens with the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe, earnest) and then shifts back and forth between the trial and other episodes in the book.
Perhaps more crucially, Sorkin has opened up the book’s most prominent black characters, Tom Robinson and longtime family maid Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), allowing them to more fully express themselves, and Sorkin presents Atticus (played with furor and sadness by Daniels) as a central protagonist and a more complicated figure, whose views (including his famous advice “to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it” before rushing to judgment) are challenged and changed.
To Kill a Mockingbird (which also sports a period score penned by Tony winner Adam Guettel and played live on organ and guitar) proves to be an engrossing, provocative and uniformly well–acted adaptation — and a fitting addition to a shifting Broadway landscape where an increasing number of plays (including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Ferryman and Network) are gaining the muscularity to stand alongside musicals in prestige and box office power.