Verdict: “To Kill a Mockingbird” Takes the Stand with a Gritty Stage Adaptation

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” photo by Julieta Cervantes

“So let’s hasten the change. Let’s hasten the end of the beginning. Let’s do it right now in Maycomb. Let’s begin by restoring this man to his family. Let’s begin with justice.” This is a line from Atticus Finch, the protagonist of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but it did not appear in the original 1960 novel. While the Pulitzer Prize winning book is still being taught in schools today and was captured in a 1964 film starring Gregory Peck, Aaron Sorkin, director of “The West Wing” and writer of “The Social Network” adapted the work in 2018 for the stage. The result is a gripping three hour Southern Gothic court drama set in the fictional rural town of Maycomb, Alabama among the backdrop of the Great Depression. “To Kill a Mockingbird” plays at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts now until April 9 with tickets available here

As the “Fire Curtain” rises, the audience is introduced to the youngest Finch child, Scout (Melanie Moore) reading the paper, proclaiming “something didn’t make sense,” bewildered at the thought that anyone could die falling onto a knife. While in the show Moore is playing a representation of an 8-year-old child, the deliberate casting of a 31-year-old actress gives a nostalgic reading of Scout’s memories, while also avoiding having to subject young children to the heavy material of the play. Her friends of that summer, older brother Jem (Daniel Neale) and Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) saunter into the scene, just as curious about the newspaper’s findings as they are of their strange neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley. Moore plays Scout as a curious yet unabashed leader of the pack, firm in her boyish mannerisms and appearance in spite of the more conservative members of her community. Neale’s portrayal of Jem plays off of Moore perfectly, with the strong-willed Jem wanting to protect his father and sister yet ultimately having to learn the strength in perseverance. As Dill, Steven Lee Johnson is cleverly calculated yet an utter delight of a character that features such immense layers to the quietly brilliant child.

The “children” all act as the show’s narrators, weaving in and out of the space as scenes occur, but at the center of the narrative is property lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas), who after a visit from Judge Taylor (David Manis) is once again summoned into working a criminal case as Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a Black man is on trial for the abuse and rape of Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki). All of the action preceding the trial is not shown at all on stage, but with the case heavily recalling the incident uses highly emotionally charged language. Atticus is played by Thomas with a poise and drawl that nearly makes him come across as a refined, witty Southern gentleman. At the core of his characterization is a sensitive man having to come to terms with the limits of his own empathy. Finch proclaims “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

However, as he meets Mayella’s father Bob Ewell (Joey Collins), an unemployed farmer by day, Klan member by night, Atticus is tested with an absolutely horrendous man on the witness stand that gives Thomas’ portrayal all the urgency the role demands. Collins plays Bob Ewell with a vicious deviance that straddles a caricature of an absolutely vile Southern man, but the audience is only ever made to feel sympathy for Ewell’s situation from exposition Finch delivers about Ewell losing his WPA job and having seven children. In its observations on the intersection of class and race, the show offers platitudes on empathy in the reality of poor White Americans clinging to white supremacist systems to maintain moral superiority. Questions on anti-intellectualism going hand in hand with racial epithets being spewed are thrown in with statements on child labor in regards to benevolent industrialist Link Deas (Jeff Still) whose presence drives the events of the trial. How the confluence of poverty and white supremacy can be combated is not a question the show aims to answer, but the more fleshed out character of Calpurnia, the Finch’s Black maid who acts as a foil to the oversight of Atticus Finch’s more “white savior” qualities. Where Atticus laments that the people of Maycomb need time to come to their senses in the deep south, Calpurnia claps back with “Well, how much time would Maycomb like?” 

As a playwright, Sorkin takes liberties to update the material to retro-fit some of the source material’s sensibilities for the modern era. Produced in 2018, at Broadway’s Shubert Theater, the sensibilities of revisiting the original novel critically during the Trump presidency was a major driving force for Sorkin. In his assessment of the text, Aaron Sorkin attempts to provide a nuanced look at Harper Lee’s book, picking up on scenes that may be interpreted with the lens of the world of the late 2010s. Whether or not he is successful in this endeavor is purely the audience member’s individual perspective, as while the show has its moments of moralizing and grandstanding to the point of Atticus Finch delivering closing arguments center stage, it does utilize additions to the text to provide alternate perspectives to the novel. For example, a scene where the segregated Black jurors thank Atticus Finch for defending Tom in court is cut and replaced with a deafening air of silence. Director Bartlett Sher provides a utilitarian staging of the show, with set design by Miriam Beuther, a dingy, worn-out, rusted warehouse becomes a courtroom, a home and a forest truly capturing the nostalgic wear of the Southern Gothic as sets are wheeled on and off-stage. While the focus primarily puts the text first, scenes are played off with church organ, foreboding choral voices and a jangly backswamp acoustic guitar arranged by Sher’s collaborator on “Light in the Piazza,” Adam Guettel.

Inevitably, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is its most successful in its performers’ sensibilities to timing. Richard Thomas not only delivers the fury of God during his interrogation of Mayella on the witness stand, but is utterly Tom Hanks-level charming in his fatherly moments. There is a musicality in how the trio of “children” act on stage that, even in a larger space like the Broward Center manages to have the entire house disarmed with levity. Sorkin’s approach to the novel is enigmatic to say the least, but his cast is well-equipped to captivate the crowd in a way that makes the 3 hour run time of the show absolutely fly by. The gripping court drama is enough to have one on the edge of their seat, but ultimately it has to be asked of the show– has Sorkin tapped into a timeless ethos like Harper Lee once did with her novel or has society simply regurgitated its problems? While the show closed on Broadway in 2021 due to unscrupulous involvement on the behalf of on-again, off-again Producer Scott Rudin, having “To Kill a Mockingbird” tour North America and especially, South Florida feels particularly relevant to our current political state that many parallels since 2018 could be drawn towards. As the show closes on a tear-eyed Calpurnia straining to proclaim “I love what I see when I look at you, Scout,” the audience is left with an idea of hope in the next generation to rise to social justice. “To Kill a Mockingbird” plays at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts now until April 9 with tickets available here

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