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Broadway Reviews

To Kill a Mockingbird

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 13, 2018

To Kill a Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Cast: Jeff Daniels, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick, Frederick Weller, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Stark Sands, Dakin Matthews, Erin Wilhelmi, Danny McCarthy, Neal Huff, Phyllis Somerville, Liv Rooth, Danny Wolohan, Baize Buzan, Thomas Michael Hammond, Ted Koch, David Manis, Aubie Merrylees, Doron JéPaul Mitchell, Jeff Still, Shona Tucker, Rebecca Watson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
Theatre: Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Jeff Daniels
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Whether you like the new stage production of Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's seminal coming of age memoir, To Kill a Mockingbird, which opened tonight at the Shubert Theatre, will depend completely on your knowledge of — and devotion to — Lee's original, 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and director Robert Mulligan's, 1962 film adaptation which boasts Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning, iconic portrayal of Atticus Finch. Comparisons to the book and film are inevitable and, quite frankly, appropriate since the producers of the play are using Elmer Bernstein's memorable music from the film to underscore their television commercials. People who haven't read the book or seen the film in decades (despite airing regularly on Turner Classic Movies), will undoubtedly love director Bartlett Sher's superbly acted and lavishly produced staging of a still urgent American tragedy. But those for whom the book is an oft-read touchstone, and those who revere the film with its Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, are liable to find their enjoyment tempered with several head-scratching missteps.

Chief among these missteps is Sher's decision to cast the three pivotal children's roles in Mockingbird with adult actors instead of real children. The role of Scout, whose story this is and who functions as our play's narrator (as she does in the novel and the film), is played by the luminous, three-time Tony nominee, Celia Keenan-Bolger. Scout's brother Jem is played by Will Pullen (Sweat) and their friend Dill Harris is portrayed by Gideon Glick (Significant Other). All three are terrific actors and do exceptional work avoiding the cloying clichés of adults playing children. But they're still adults and look like adults on stage. And if Mockingbird is anything, it's the story of three children who are transformed by the events of a traumatic summer in a sleepy Alabama town when it's rocked to its core by the trial of a clearly innocent black man, Bob Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), who is pushed to testify by her racist father, Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller). At the urging of Judge Taylor (Dakin Matthews), Robinson is defended in court by Scout and Jem's father, Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels). In 2018 it can't be a spoiler to reveal Robinson is convicted by the prosecuting attorney, Horace Gilmer (Stark Sands), and an all-white jury which, in Sher's production, is represented by 12 empty chairs on stage. The conclusion of Mockingbird finds Bob Ewell exacting revenge on Atticus by attacking his children as they walk home through the woods after a school pageant. A mysterious and frightening neighbor, Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan), who's been the object of intense fascination by the children all summer ends up saving them and teaching Scout a valuable lesson about prejudging people before you've walked in their shoes. (Though Sorkin favors the phrase, "crawled around in their skin.")

Casting Keenan-Boger, Pullen and Glick doesn't derail Sher's production, but their presence is a constant reminder that actual children would have been a better and more effective choice. It doesn't help Sher has the three actors wandering around stage in scenes they're not in, commenting on the action to the audience. In an interview with Deadline Hollywood, Jeff Daniels was adamant there were no child actors in New York who could handle Sorkin's dialogue and, when posed with the example of the superb children in The Ferryman, still insisted he wasn't interested in working with them. Similarly, in a CBS 60 Minutes piece on Mockingbird, the host Steve Croft intones, "the children's roles of Scout, Jem and Dill are all played by adults looking back because the parts were simply too big and too difficult for child actors." Of course, anyone who attends theatre regularly in New York knows that simply isn't true. Just one case in point would be Sydney Lucas, a recent Tony-nominee for her incredible performance in Fun Home. Gifted kids are out there, you just have to look for them. (It's interesting to note the Mockingbird cast and creative team declined to be interviewed for a recent piece in The New York Times by Eric Grode about adults playing children on stage.)

Sorkin wanted his adaptation to expand up on Lee's classic novel and his script does just that. But Sorkin eschews the linear structure of the novel and film, and Tom Robinson's trial becomes the device on which the play's structure is based with much of the first act jumping back and forth in time. Additionally, the character of Atticus, wondrously played by Daniels, has a different arc in Sorkin's play. In Lee's memoir, Atticus is a towering pillar of rectitude and saintliness; he has all the answers for his children's inquiring minds. In Sorkin's play, however, Atticus wrestles with the questions posed by the dilemma in which he finds himself. His confidence is shaken in the people and neighbors he's known all his life and it's clear he's agonizing over self-doubt in himself and in society. By this writer's estimate, about two-thirds of Sorkin's adaptation hews closely to Lee's story and dialogue, with subtle changes here and there that don't distract or damage the original. But approximately one-third has been Sorkin-ized with the trademark dialogue fans of Sports Night, The West Wing and The Newsroom savor and love. Some of those Sorkin zingers have been given to Tom Robinson and to the Finch's black maid, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), both of whom have been given more agency in this production which is obviously a good thing in light of the racism which still permeates our lives. In Sorkin's play Calpurnia is like a sister to Atticus and she acts as his conscience, whether he realizes it or not. Jackson's performance of this tricky role is spot-on and when she finally explodes, her words are fully earned and realized.

Surprisingly, however, Sorkin completely jettisons Atticus' famous closing argument at the end of Tom Robinson's trial. Tom has made the grievous error of admitting on the stand he felt sorry for Mayella, and Sorkin proceeds to make this mistake the reason for the all-white jury convicting him even though they know he was physically incapable of raping her in the manner described. In the novel and film, Atticus speaks eloquently about Mayella's temerity in desiring a black man. "She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards." Sorkin opts for a monologue for Atticus in which he denounces the racism that pervades society and beseeches them not to convict Robinson merely because he pitied a white woman. "Don't do this," he repeats several times, referring to their ultimate conviction. (A more specific quote isn't available because the production didn't make Sorkin's script available to critics.) It's a soaring monologue and Daniels delivers it brilliantly. But it substantially changes the argument behind Lee's intent.

There are also a handful of small mistakes in this Mockingbird which seem so obvious it's a wonder no one fixed them. The usually pitch-perfect designer Ann Roth completely misses on Tom Robinson's costumes. Again, it shouldn't be a spoiler to point out that we learn in the trial Tom had his left arm caught in a cotton gin when he was 11-years old. His arm is supposed to be withered and unusable, but Roth puts actor Gbenga Akinnagbe (making his Broadway debut) in a tight cream-colored Henley which shows off the well-defined musculature in his shoulders and arms. He needs to be in a loose-fitting shirt which doesn't accentuate his body. Later, in the trial, Roth puts him in a brown suit which, as a man who picks cotton for a living, he would never own. He should be in jeans or overalls. Another costuming blunder involves Scout at the end of the play when she's in her ‘ham' costume coming home from the school pageant. Scout states several times that she had to wear her ‘ham' home because her clothes were locked up in a room at school. But then when she takes the ‘ham' off, she's dressed as she's been the entire play. She should have been in long-johns or underwear of some sort. Similarly, Sheriff Heck Tate (Danny McCarthy) says they found a shoe next to a knife where Bob Ewell attacked Scout and Jem. He asks Scout if the shoe is hers and she says, ‘yes,' but she's wearing both of her shoes so how could it be hers. Finally, at the end of the play, famously Boo Radley, beautifully played by Danny Wolohan (also making his Broadway debut), is hiding behind a bedroom door after he's carried Jem to the Finch house after the children were attacked by Bob Ewell. When Scout sees him she famously says "hey, Boo" at which point Wolohan's been directed to push the door open and reveal himself. But Boo would never do that; that's why he's hiding behind the door in the first place. Scout should have walked over to the door and revealed Boo instead. Granted, these are minor details, but this is a multi-million dollar, Scott Rudin-produced, Broadway production. Is it too much to ask to get the small stuff right?

On a bright note, Sher and Sorkin have wisely cast some of the best character actors in New York in many small, supporting roles. As Mrs. Henry DuBose, a racist old lady who feels perfectly at ease telling Scout and Jem how worthless they are, Phyllis Somerville is delicious. Dakin Matthews could play Judge Taylor in his sleep, but it doesn't make him any less wonderful. Neal Huff is heartbreaking as Link Deas, the town drunk who shares his family history with the children as a way of explaining why he doesn't much like people, and Stark Sands, Frederick Weller and Erin Wilhelmi's performances chill us to the bone with their in-your-face racism. Special mention must be made of the gorgeous and understated music which pervades Sher's production, courtesy of the brilliant Adam Guettel, played throughout by Allen Tedder (guitar) and musical director Kimberly Grigsby (pump organ).

Of course, there's nothing wrong with the first stage version of Lee's novel, written by Christopher Sergel. It's been seen around the country in countless regional and community theatre productions of the show. Matthew Modine starred as Atticus in a 2009 Hartford Stage mounting of Sergel's script, and Robert Sean Leonard assumed the role in a 2013 Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production. In the end, it's likely Aaron Sorkin's new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, in Bartlett Sher's compelling production, will overcome any minor controversies to become a smash hit with audiences. And that's a good thing.