Skeptics can relax. Playwright Aaron Sorkin has successfully transformed the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, into a first-rate theatrical production. The play, featuring a superb performance by Jeff Daniels as small-time lawyer, Atticus Finch, is captivating and emotionally riveting.
Like the source material, the focus of the show is on the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a Black worker who is on trial for raping a local girl. In Macomb County Georgia in the 1930’s that would be a sure death warrant, but Atticus Finch sets his sights on freeing what he sees as an innocent man. Other characters swirl around the story, both amplifying the action and providing crucial backstory information—the lawyer’s two young children, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jem (Will Pullen); their friend Dill (Gideon Glick); the family’s Black house keeper Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson); the father of the accused Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller); and others.
Harper Lee’s novel is rich in its exploration of injustice, racism, loyalty, socio-economic status, the social class system, honor, and morality. The themes and scenarios have been fodder for middle school, high school, and college undergraduates for decades. Sorkin, who at one point was sued by the Harper Lee estate for his conceptualization and structure of the play, has reconfigured the book where the trial takes center stage and other plot points emanate, like spokes of a wheel, from this core. They serve to broaden and provide valuable nuance to the production. Some of the tangents work better than others, which is expected when attempting to fully spotlight and sufficiently amplify critical moments from the book.
Sorkin has purposed the three performers playing the pre-teen and teenage kids as narrators of the events. In the book, Scout serves as our guide through the novel’s happenings, but dividing the duties provides variety and subtlety to the action. During much of the production they also serve, sentinel-like, just off center stage, silently witnessing the proceedings.
One of the playwright’s other significant changes was investing the character of Calpurnia with a more outspoken disposition than would be applicable to the time frame of the novel. Does this updating to 21st century attitudes detract or hinder the overall thrust of the production? Only somewhat, but it also allows an adult counterpoint for Atticus.
The large cast is led by Jeff Daniels. The actor totally embodies the role of Atticus Finch. Fans of the book or movie version, which garnered an Academy Award for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the lawyer, will not be disappointed. Daniels is caring and compassionate, yet firm. He exhibits an inner strength that commands respect and deference. Celia Keenan-Bolger is impressive as Scout. She displays the spunkiness, earnestness, and vulnerability of the character. Will Pullen admirably positions Jem between the world of a teenage boy and young man and all its accompanying pains and questions. Gideon Glick infuses Dill with both a boisterous outgoingness and saddened affectation. LaTanya Richardson Jackson portrays Calpurnia with a fine-tuned balance of grace and outspokenness. Gbenga Akinnagbe imbues Tom Robinson with a quiet dignity and a highly principled disposition even as his fate is in jeopardy. The character of Bob Ewell is a drunken lout and vile individual and the actor Frederick Weller completely personifies all these malevolent traits. Erin Wilhelmi gives Mayella Ewell a realistic sorrowfulness layered with an inner, fiery strength.
Scenic Designer Miriam Buether has crafted two primary set pieces—the Finch front porch and the courtroom–that seamlessly flow in and off the stage with silent efficiency. He also focuses on understated details, such as the dirtied green, peeling paint of the back walls of the courtroom.
Director Bartlett Sher, who has successfully helmed large-scale productions at Lincoln Center, orchestrates the sizable cast and creative components into a well-synchronized team. The pacing is strong, never dragging. However, moments of reflection and turmoil are allowed to be teased out for maximum effectiveness.
To Kill a Mockingbird, an entertaining and thought-provoking theatrical experience not to be missed.