By Paige Allen
June 28, 2019
You could take Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird and perform it word-for-word, and it would make for a pleasant theatrical experience.
That is not at all what playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher strive to create with their stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird playing at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre.
The danger in an “exact” adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is the potential of failing to challenge a modern audience. An exact retelling just doesn’t have the same shock value it did when the book was first released. The racism is so blatant, and the conviction so obviously wrong. Plus, we know what’s going to happen, and the story holds an almost unparalleled beloved status, producing an air of warmth and familiarity that softens its impact.
In order to make To Kill a Mockingbird feel fresh, Sorkin and Sher dare to shake up this revered tale to find and elevate the moments which speak most urgently—even if it means angering some purists. The result is a production that reinvigorates Lee’s work with a relevancy I did not expect walking into the theater.
Sorkin’s reframes the work by changing its focus. Lee’s novel is emphatically a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story with Scout Finch—the brash, clever, “tomboyish” young girl—squarely at its center. We see the world through Scout’s eyes, and we watch her develop over the course of the novel.
Sorkin’s play, on the other hand, places the trial at its heart. Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe, who packs emotion into short lines and silences), a black man, stands trial for the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi whose performance is both sympathetic and sickening)—a crime which, it is proven through the bruising on Mayella’s body, he physically could not commit because of his inability to use his left hand. The innocent Tom is found guilty.
Each moment of the play is framed in relation to what happens in the courtroom. If a scene is not part of the trial itself, it is directly connected to the lead-up or aftermath. Thanks to the scenic design of Miriam Buether, the play literally happens inside the walls of the courtroom, now decrepit and overgrown. As Sorkin’s script is nonlinear, the trial happens in pieces, lasting the course of the play as we are brought back to the courtroom again and again by our narrators.
Yes, narrators, plural. As in the book, Scout (played by Celia Keenan-Bolger with the true earnestness and unselfconscious awkwardness of youth) guides us with her distinctive voice. Sorkin also incorporates narration from two additional sources: the morally tenacious Jem (Scout’s older brother, given a fighting spirit by Will Pullen) as well as the Finch children’s equally intellectual and endearing friend, Dill Harris (the bright-yet-nuanced Gideon Glick, whose truly remarkable performance deals in equal parts laughter and heartache).
Scout, Jem, and Dill reconstruct the events for the audience. The play exists in their collective memory; they are simultaneously children trying to piece together a complicated situation and shadows of older versions of themselves.
Allowing Jem and Dill to join Scout in narrating elevates the inner lives of these boys struggling toward manhood. Jem develops his sense of right and wrong while realizing it may not be the same as his father’s, and Dill faces an absent father and a distant mother while struggling to conform to familial and societal expectations of masculinity.
Knowing what it takes to be a man? “It’s hard sometimes,” Dill quietly admits.
If the play teaches us anything, it’s that knowing what it takes to be a good man is even harder.
Who better to show us than the “good guy” himself, Atticus Finch, imbued by Jeff Daniels with a quiet strength and depth of character. Atticus has achieved legendary status in the public imagination. By many, he is regarded as a paragon of virtue, an exemplary attorney, and a vessel of racial justice, soft-spoken wisdom, and moral fortitude. Atticus, in popular culture, is nothing short of a hero.
Sorkin, however, resists any temptation to write Atticus as the pristine white savior he is often made out to be. Sorkin instead depicts Atticus as a man—brave, wise, kind, and flawed.
Atticus believes there is good in everyone if you look hard enough, that it takes crawling around in another person’s skin to truly understand them. While these are noble beliefs, Atticus’s insistence on respect and deference at any cost is challenged again and again—by Scout, by Jem, and by the family’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia (the commanding and comedic LaTanya Richardson Jackson). When their elderly neighbor Mrs. Dubose (Phyllis Somerville) continually spits malicious and offensive language at Scout and Jem, should they really just smile and take it? When Bob Ewell (a slick and explosive Frederick Weller) threatens to have Atticus lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, should the correct response really be to empathize with Bob’s perspective?
These are the tough questions that To Kill a Mockingbird challenges us to face: at what point does understanding and explaining another’s behavior become excusing or even condoning it? As Calpurnia puts it, when do we, in “respecting” the hateful perspectives of some, disrespect others?
These questions speak as much to our lives today as they do to the history in which the play is situated. While I occasionally could sit back and think, “Thank God it isn’t like that anymore,” too often I was unsettled by the terrifying familiarity of what I heard.
When Bob makes the sickening argument that blacks are inherently animalistic because they “don’t have roads” in Africa (in his view, Africans either don’t want to build roads or are incapable of it), I could hear the modern rhetoric of “shithole countries.” As Bob expresses how dangerous he feels it is to live near the black neighborhood and how the “nest” should be cleared out by the police, I could feel the presence of current conversations. Moreover, the tension between the “educated” Atticus and the “uneducated” Ewells is still identifiable in our classism today.
The seats in which the twelve white men who convict Tom should sit are empty the entire play, but it isn’t until we are directly addressed by Atticus during his closing argument that we truly recognize that we are the jury. As Atticus pleads that we do the right thing, I cannot help but think of all the ways we continue to fail the Tom Robinsons of the world.
The source novel may have been written almost sixty years ago and set in a time removed from us by eight decades, but the distance in time between the events of the play and the Civil War is about the same. And when Jem interrupts Atticus’s explanation of the Civil War’s effects on folks like Bob to protest “that was seventy years ago,” Atticus responds, “It was yesterday.” Until we heal the wounds, “It will always be yesterday.”
Sorkin’s reinvigorated To Kill a Mockingbird challenges us to identify the injustices in our own communities and work to remedy them. We do not need to be perfect to do the right thing; as we discover, alongside Jem and Scout, even Atticus (especially Atticus) is not. The least we can do is join him in trying to do good. Because, in Scout’s words, “trying to do the right thing is the right thing.”
If we don’t try to change, the chilling moment of Tom’s conviction—the word “guilty” repeated twelve times over—will always be yesterday.
BCS-friendliness rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Thanks to some generous friends of mine who have connections to the show, I had the privilege of seeing To Kill a Mockingbird for $39 with a standing room only ticket!
Although my personal BCS experience was a 5-out-5, I have to give the show overall only one star because of the difficulty in getting cheap (or even reasonably priced) tickets on short notice. Even through TodayTix, the show is absurdly expensive in July, dropping to a palatable price tag in August and only becoming maybe BCS accessible in September. I’m sure as those dates get closer the ticket prices will rise again. I’m not sure how available the production is through TKTS, but I’m sure it isn’t great.
Same-day rush tickets are available when the box office opens, $49 for orchestra (a bit steep for a rush ticket) and $39 for balcony. The standing room only ticket I received was $39, and I believe those are available same-day rush as well. I actually didn’t mind standing for the show and had a generally good view of the stage. However, the balcony did obstruct the upper part of my view, so I didn’t get to truly appreciate the full scenic design as I often didn’t see the pieces that were flying in from the ceiling.