New York City Theater
"To Kill a Mockingbird"
If lines in Aaron Sorkin’s rousing new adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” sound familiar, it’s not only because they echo the beloved novel. Like many contemporary works, even those that take place in other eras as this does (the time is 1934), much will remind viewers of the divisiveness, greed and prejudice that infect our society. Every mention that praises “white race” and “our people” or disparages “intellectuals” has its avatar in the news.
The play sticks closely to the novel, although theatergoers who’ve read the book may comprehend events obscure to non-readers. Colorful details are given short shrift (much of the Boo Radley story, for instance) in the interest of a forward-driven narrative.
But the most obvious change is to the character of attorney and father Atticus Finch. As Jeff Daniels plays him (no doubt, as written and directed), Atticus is more the laid-back lawyer doing his job than a paragon of equality. True, he skewers bigots but is less a champion of morality than in the book and its subsequent film (with Gregory Peck as Atticus). Sorkin avoids grandstanding, appealing, instead, to justice more because it’s logical, less because it’s correct. The interpretation changes the novel’s intent.
Sorkin uses the court case as both frame and leitmotif by re-structuring the novel to begin with the trial, going back to it throughout. An innocent black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping the white, not-so-innocent Mayella Ewell who lured Tom to her house. From the prospective of nine-year old Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill Harris, they observe and learn the terrible things adults can say and do. Stalking the trial participants, they’re Fates in the making, would-be avenging angels.
Their father, the much admired Atticus, has undertaken Robinson’s defense, naively believing the truth will out even in this prejudicial Alabama hometown. It takes Calpurnia, the Finches’ black housekeeper, to remind Atticus of bigotry’s evils.
This is a major production, big in scale, with standout performances by a large cast. In addition to Daniels’ pillar of rectitude, the wonderful Celia Keenan-Bolger’s as wise and fearless tomboy, Scout. Particularly moving are Gideon Glick as the awkward Dill, Dakin Mathews as the sympathetic judge, Danny Wolohan as the kindly Boo and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the forthright Calpurnia. Neal Huff is superb as Link Deas who pretends to be the town drunkard and, as the less desirable characters, Frederick Weller is compelling as ever as Bob Ewell, with Erin Wilhelmi as the fearful, feisty Mayella and Stark Sands the smarmy prosecutor.
Director Bartlett Sher corrals cast and production, balancing intimate moments and larger issues without having his distinct characters swallowed up in the complex production. Miriam Buether’s scenery is starkly effective, although placing the defendants and their table down right cuts off the view of house left spectators.
Wagging his finger at us for our supposed indifference to racism, Trump style, playwright Aaron Sorkin digs into the essence of a world where few can see the looming fire that will surely destroy the forest. As he has Atticus say, “We have to heal this wound or we’ll never stop bleeding.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 4, 2019