Regional Reviews: Boston
To Kill a Mockingbird
So I'm pleased to say that Aaron Sorkin, one of our leading chroniclers of American icons in TV and film, largely succeeds at adapting Lee's novel to the stage. His script is good–humored, light on sentimentality, and muscular enough to justify retelling this story 60 years after the book became a phenomenon. Like the titular bird, Sorkin's work frequently sings, with crisp dialogue and honey-laced wit.
Under Bartlett Sher's warm direction, this stage adaptation of one fateful summer in Maycomb, Alabama, pays homage to everything we love about Lee's novel. Sher's touring production, currently playing at the Boston Opera House, has an appealing simplicity, from the open-air sets by Miriam Buether to the gentle hymns punctuating Adam Guettel's elegant musical score.
This is a memory play akin to the work of Tennessee Williams, narrated by an adult Scout Finch (played by Melanie Moore) as she recounts that summer when her father defended an innocent black man facing execution. Casting adult actors as six-year-old Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill is a smart way to avoid any cloying cuteness; they invite us to journey back in time, to look with fresh eyes at a story we all know well. We see, for example, the effect that the trial has on Jem, a boy growing into manhood: his awakening to the racial injustice embedded deep in his town, and his dissatisfaction with his father's insistence on being civil, even in the face of unambiguous prejudice.
But this Mockingbird aims higher than nostalgia. Sorkin's script reexamines Lee's novel through a contemporary lens, with frequent reminders of Black lives still lost to violence and allusions to modern culture wars around civil discourse. In no surprise to Sorkin's fans, the meat of the play happens in the courtroom. The play opens on the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman, then cuts back and forth between the court proceedings and the other events of that summer that lead up to the trial. Every courtroom scene is electric, but it also means that the children's comic misadventures (including their fascination with reclusive neighbor Boo Radley) feel less potent than the adults' stories.
Atticus Finch, defender of what's right and just in this world, holds a mythic status in our public consciousness. Credit goes to Sorkin, and to Richard Thomas's deft portrayal, that the Atticus on stage shakes off any suggestion that he's superhuman. This Atticus is, as we've always known him, a good man–a loving father to Jem and Scout and a practical yet abiding optimist. Thomas is excellent as the "small town lawyer who gets paid in vegetables," an assured and steady presence with fire pulsing below the surface. In his hands, we understand how this man can espouse a "fundamental goodness in everyone" but still feel conflicted about his own self-professed principles. Something simmers under Atticus's measured exterior–a fierce determination to stand up against injustice, even against all the odds.
Atticus still delivers his most famous aphorism: "You never really understand a person until you climb into their skin and walk around in it." But in a modern corrective, the family's housekeeper Calpurnia openly chastises Atticus for this refrain. Calpurnia, the most reimagined character, takes advantage of her deserved space in the story, and pushes back on Atticus's white-savior complex and rose-colored view of justice for Black lives. Jacqueline Williams is a strong presence as Calpurnia, a proper sparring partner for Thomas's Atticus, and her expanded role breathes life into the play even though this character feels more contemporary than everyone around her.
Sorkin has a tendency to write characters who wink at the audience, so that we don't mistake anyone who's on the right (or wrong) side of history. Take the trial judge, who is asked to deliver a sitcom performance characterized by quick zingers that underline every objectionable thing the opposition says. Our main antagonist, Bob Ewell, is no more than a capital-R Racist, plus a vocal anti-Semite and a proud Klan member. Maybe some characters are worthy of climbing into their skin, but not all. There's also the unmistakable feeling of liberal self-righteousness every time Scout compels us to action by proclaiming "All rise!" (a nod to the main court setting). It's a bumper sticker tacked on to a story that doesn't need it.
More effective are the moments where, to paraphrase Atticus, we come to really understand these people. For example, a late-night porch-swing talk between Calpurnia and Scout allows us to see how pivotal Calpurnia is to Scout's upbringing. The full ensemble is excellent, approaching Sorkin's words with an easy naturalism. Arianna Gayle Stucki, in particular, makes an affecting Mayella Ewell, the woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape; on the witness stand, her posture changes on a dime from fragile to vehement, lashing out in disquieting rage when confronted. Anthony Natale, a Deaf actor who signs most of his dialogue, charms as the supposed "town drunk," teaching the kids not to judge by what they've heard through gossiping neighbors. And the three actors playing the children are all winning, especially Steven Lee Johnson's off-center, unexpectedly wise Dill.
With its irresistible characters and a beautiful, big-hearted production, To Kill a Mockingbird makes a solid transition to the stage. The words may be new, but the tale still feels familiar.
To Kill a Mockingbird, presented by Broadway in Boston through April 17, 2022, at the Citizens Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston MA. Tickets are sold at broadwayinboston.com or by phone at 617-451-2345. For more information on the tour, visit tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com/tour/.
Cast: Richard Thomas: Atticus Finch