I’ve seen Sorkin’s adaptation many times – at the Shubert Theater on Broadway, at Madison Square Garden with 18,000 teenagers, even in excerpts played at the Library of Congress. But the convergence of the Alabama courtroom drama’s “then” and the “now,” as it’s illuminated in the Kennedy Center touring production through July 10, hasn’t never been so obvious.
Watching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ with 18,000 school kids was a highlight
The “now” creeps repeatedly into Sorkin’s script, deftly staged by director Bartlett Sher and a cast led by Richard Thomas as the particularly emotional Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends Tom. “A crowd is a place where people go to pause in their consciousness,” Atticus explains to his children, Scout (Melanie Moore) and Jem (Justin Mark). “When the horror comes to dinner, it comes dressed exactly like a Christian,” says Link Deas (Anthony Natale), a white man ostracized for marrying a black woman.
You hear the words over and over as if they emanate not from a Depression-era Southern courtroom, but from the dividing thicket of a troubled 2022. “We must heal this wound,” Atticus says, calling on his neighbors’ best angels. in his defense summary, “or we’ll never stop bleeding.”
It’s worth noting that, as this is Sorkin’s work, the rhetoric is replete with lyrical flourishes – and a few impassioned, ideologically transparent finger movements. The play, in general, holds up well, and Thomas, who forever exudes a well-cleansed Middle American decency, makes a natural choice to follow in the role created by Jeff Daniels. Yet the cavernous 2,364-seat opera house isn’t the ideal environment for a play, even as lyrical as “Mockingbird.” I sat in the 11th row of the orchestra section, and the action felt somewhat remote even from that vantage point. (A friend of the theater joked that for second level viewers, the play ends 10 minutes later.)
Aaron Sorkin and Jeff Daniels made ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ a mission
The place in this case can explain a sharp increase in the emotional volume of the room. Joey Collins’ Bob Ewell, for example, the irredeemably racist miscreant who threatens Atticus’ family, is now so hyper-dramatically evil he might as well twirl a Sneaky Whip mustache. The nasal, whiny caricature makes it harder to credit Atticus’ plea that his children find it in their hearts to understand the downtrodden Bob. There are also unnecessary escalations in the nasty faces of characters such as Tom’s accuser Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki), and Mrs. Henry Dubose, played here by Mary Badham – who was Scout in the 1962 film starring Gregory , Oscar winner. Peck.
The sad results of “Mockingbird” are detailed to us by Scout, Jem and their new friend, Dill (Steven Lee Johnson), who split the storytelling and alternate in perspective between themselves adult and younger. It’s an effective device for propelling the plot and keeping the cast of characters around them straight, and the three actors make lively and engaging impressions. The play’s power, however, lies in the dignified stoicism of its morally righteous characters, Yaegel T. Welch’s Tom and Atticus’ longtime governess, Calpurnia. She’s played here by Jacqueline Williams with the world-weary authority of one who has witnessed and experienced suffering – a characteristic the actress wraps her performance in, beautifully.
Sorkin writes winning supporting roles for Natale’s Link and Richard Poe’s Judge Taylor, both of which weave the story with reassuring humanity; the people of Maycomb County, Alabama, it seems, have a fair amount of goodness in their ranks. The kindest of them all, and not entirely to the approval of his children, is Atticus. This trait translates into a community that harbors as much racism as a failure as a virtue, and Thomas proves to be an utterly compelling vehicle for Atticus’ baffling insistence that he there is goodness in everyone.
“I believe in being respectful,” Atticus told Calpurnia. To which she replies, “It doesn’t matter who you’re disrespecting by doing it.”
Atticus’s passions for Thomas are much closer to the surface than those of Daniels or Ed Harris, his Broadway successor. The choking that occurs in Atticus as he defends Tom’s innocence is new to the character. That Atticus wears his heart on his sleeve is fine, but hopefully an actor of Thomas’ estimable caliber won’t let it turn into an indulgence.
Also new to the production is a small but significant direction tweak in the final scene, which Sher added to the Broadway version following the pandemic shutdown. (The show closed on Broadway earlier this year, but there are plans to bring it back in the fall.) That change has to do with a reappearance by Tom and the delivery of a Bible, which Atticus hopes quotes the verse “Joy comes in the morning”. Which leads us to notice that in the theater joy can also come in the evening.
Kill a mockingbird, by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Sets, Miriam Buether; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; his Scott Lehrer; musical direction, Kim Grigsby. With David Christopher Wells, Liv Rooth, Travis Johns. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Until July 10 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.