There are few books, let alone plays, that capture the essence of their time and yet still resonate deeply today. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has, in tandem with the Gregory Peck-starring film, been a staple of high school English curriculums across the nation and enlightened generations of the American public with its themes about justice-driven ideals, courage, racism, false accusations, and dangerous group think.
In 2018, acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin reworked the classic book into a play that sustains the spirit of its origins while reallocating its focus to certain elements that cater a little more to modern sensibilities. Directed by Bartlett Sher, who paces the dramatic events excellently, the play is one of the most gripping and illuminating experiences anyone will have at the theatre. In addition to being highly entertaining, the stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is, more importantly, edifying and speaks to what it means to be a moral and socially conscious human being. With three hours to tell its story, the play gets right down to business, never meandering, and spotlighting urgent developments, all the while imbuing its well-intentioned characters with more humanity and its antagonists with an indubitable inhumanity.
Having been rewarded with sold-out houses on Broadway, the national tour of To Kill a Mockingbird is now playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through November 27th before it migrates 45 miles south to the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa (Dec. 27, 2022 – Jan. 8, 2023). The premise, which still takes place in the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, is generally the same, but reordered differently. The conflict, of course, arises when Tom Robinson, a black man, is unjustly accused of rape, prompting an upright lawyer of a modest background, Atticus Finch, to represent Robinson in a trial that becomes the centerpiece of the proceedings — a notable change from the novel which doesn’t introduce the courtroom until halfway through. Through the lens of the trial is where germane information is recalled by the play’s three narrators: Scout, her brother Jem, and their out-of-town buddy Dill. Furthermore, Atticus isn’t altogether staid and stoic anymore as Sorkin’s interpretation enables us to see how the small-town attorney evolves, how his idealism about people comes at a crossroads with the inconveniences of reality, and how he is perhaps not the entirely unassailable man we thought he was.
From the very first scene, it is apparent that Miriam Buether’s set, inclusive of a courtroom and front porch inside a dilapidated warehouse — which is made to feel more immediate due to Ann Roth’s on-point period costumes — is at once simple but powerful in how it transports us to the 1930s. Like Buether’s scenic touches, Adam Guettel’s plaintive and pensive music becomes the soundtrack by which audience members can contemplate what the eradication of injustice really entails; is it about redressing ills that have befallen individuals or identifying the root cause in lieu of the symptom to prevent abject outcomes in the first place? Sometimes the root is rotten past what could be salvaged and should be cast aside, just like individuals who reach a level of despicability beyond what can be atoned for or empathized with.
The protagonist Atticus Finch — and all his nuances — is fully realized by The Waltons’ Richard Thomas, who, similar to Jeff Daniels, Ed Harris, and Greg Kinnear on Broadway, infuses his Atticus with a gravitas and valor, which at initial glance is unblemished but, over time, reveals an impracticality about certain malicious people who, despite his best intentions, cannot be understood or reasoned with. A prime example is the dastardly Bob Ewell (portrayed impeccably by Joey Collins who leaves no doubt that his persona is irredeemably disgraceful), who is father to the plaintiff and distraught victim in her own right, Mayella Ewell (depicted effectively with a misguided adversarial rancor by Arianna Gayle Stucki).
Thomas is spectacular in peeling back layers within not only his Atticus but vis-à-vis the characters he interacts with, allowing Sorkin’s words to settle with maximum impact. Interestingly, Thomas is lively as Atticus, who is an optimist at heart but also confronted with the eye-opening epiphany that he might not “know these people anymore.” His drive to do the honorable thing sometimes spills out into a righteous outrage directed at the justice system and its treatment of Tom Robinson who dared to “feel sorry” for a white woman. Here, as saintly as Atticus is, taking on a criminal case outside of his expertise, he too has imperfections and a breaking point.
Pushing the play forward are Atticus’s daughter, Scout, played with a tireless and incisive buoyancy by Melanie Moore; brother Jem, a role that Justin Mark brings a mature, steadfast forthrightness to; as well as the surprisingly wise Dill, portrayed by Steven Lee Johnson, who offers humorous moments to offset some of the more somber beats in the narrative. The three also have an insatiable curiosity about the inscrutable Arthur “Boo” Radley (Travis Johns) who is not as much a central part of the play but whose inclusion is nonetheless satisfying. It should also be said that having adults play children is a risky choice, but it pays off here, augmenting the stakes and allowing the play flow more seamlessly.
Two additional characters that benefit from Sorkin’s rendering are Tom Robinson, the defendant, and the Finch family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia. Compared with the book, these two black characters are bestowed a more palpable heroism and are liberated via the provisioning of lines that peek into their psyches, extending to the way they see themselves with respect to their white counterparts, and how the trial is poignantly affecting them. The credit for this successful reimagining also belongs to the performers playing them; for instance, Jacqueline Williams channels an intrepidness within Calpurnia, who is expressed wholesomely and unabashedly even if it might be at diametric ends with Atticus’s perception that there is some part in everybody which is inherently good. Yaegel T. Welch, moreover, makes for a more well-rounded Tom Robinson who, besides being at the wrong end of justice, and having us on the edge of our seats in his retelling of events in the courtroom, is conscientious and astute about the racial power dynamics enfolding him (e.g., “I was guilty as soon I was accused”).
Other notable performers include Richard Poe as Judge Taylor who evokes suitable laughter with well-timed quips amid the serious goings-on, David Christopher Wells as the reasonable and matter-of-fact Sheriff Heck Tate, Luke Smith as the unscrupulous prosecutor Horace Gilmer, and Jeff Still as the extraordinarily percipient and discerning Link Deas. Lastly, in what is an absolute treat for audiences, Mary Badham, who received an Oscar nomination for her delineation of Scout in the 1962 film, is in the play as the hot-temperedly racist, morphine-dependent, and doddering Mrs. Henry Dubose. Although not as heinous as Bob Ewell, Mrs. Dubose is representative of the type of person who is incorrigible and not worth affording the benefit of the doubt to. This axiom, which ultimately contrasts with the novel’s indiscriminately forgiving message, is especially clear to Jem and Calpurnia, though one that the civil-minded Atticus has some difficulty grasping.
Nevertheless, it is a realization that Atticus subtly acknowledges during his darkest tribulations — that only the helpless are worth saving, not those who bully and abuse the public’s trust. Certainly, Atticus is right when he remarks that he doesn’t “want [his children] hating people they disagree with,” but to be proudly racist, venomous, and horribly insensitive transcends mere disagreement to become its own unenviable category. This learning curve that Atticus must meet is a chink in his armor, and a portrayal that distinguishes Sorkin’s vision from Lee’s.
Overall, Sorkin’s realistic representation brings To Kill a Mockingbird, in good conscience, to the sphere of public discourse in 2022 where it deserves to be lauded for being captivating, brilliantly acted, and innovative in how it poetically retraces Lee’s classic alongside new commentary that make these indelible characters even more identifiable to us.
For further details about the national tour of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, and to purchase tickets, please visit: broadwayinhollywood.com
For more information on the upcoming Dec. 27, 2022 – Jan 8, 2023 run of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, visit: scfta.org