Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin’s new play adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ currently at The Kennedy Center starring Emmy Award–winning actor Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher, strays far afield from the iconic 1962 movie version of novelist Harper Lee’s classic.
Set in Macomb, Ala. in 1934, Lee’s enduring story of racial injustice and childhood innocence centers on one of the most venerated characters American literature, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch.
Whereas Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is perpetually stoic in the face of 1930s southern racism, Sorkin’s Atticus waivers between steadfast and inconstant in his exploration of good versus evil. While Peck is an unwavering hero for trying to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, for a rape crime he didn’t commit, Thomas’ character comes off as a Pollyanna who thinks Tom Robinson will win his case on appeal. When Peck turns the other cheek when affronted for defending a black man is admirable in the film, Thomas appears wishy-washy, idealistic, and weak for not standing up to the vicious prejudice in his community.
This more realistic interpretation of Atticus’ character fits in better with today’s current climate of bitterness toward racist extremism flowing through the veins of today’s society – decades after the book was written.
One of the ways Sorkin sheds light on Atticus’ flaws is through sarcastic humor.
One who holds Sorkin’s Atticus accountable is Calpurnia, the Finch’s longtime African American maid, played here by the highly effective Jacqueline Williams.
“A person shouldn’t feel frightened where they live,” Thomas opines to her about the stark bigotry in his community.
“Let me try to relate to that,” Calpurnia quips back.
Calpurnia also mocks Atticus for constantly referring to community members that include a lynch mob at one point, as “friends and neighbors.”
“I just believe in being polite,” Atticus retorts.
One of these neighbors, Mrs. Henry Dubose, who perpetually insults his children is played by Mary Badham, who played Scout, Atticus’ daughter, in the movie, and who somehow makes her offenses hilarious.
Another change from the original book and movie that doesn’t make as much sense is the deemphasis on Boo Radley, the recluse neighbor for whom Atticus’ children are obsessed with and who eventually saves Jem, his son, and Scout from Robinson’s accuser, Bob Ewell. Boo isn’t prosecuted because he righted a wrong, according to the sheriff.
“My father taught me you should never kill a mockingbird because they are innocent,” exclaims Atticus.
In the book and movie, this reference is a metaphor for both Robinson and Boo Radely, who are both innocent in their own ways. Taking Boo somewhat out of the equation weakens the metaphor.
The acting in this production is formidable.
Thomas (known for his iconic role as John Boy in The Waltons) is no less than a powerhouse in his depiction of Atticus. His break loose scene in the court room when accusing Mayella Ewell, the supposed rape victim, of lying about Tom is goose bump worthy, as is his closing argument which he appeals directly to the audience.
“We have to heal this wound, or we will never stop bleeding,” he angrily preaches to his fictional jury of 1934 and seemingly to us, in the audience in 2022 in the wake of renewed systemic intolerance and a national reckoning around race.
Melanie Moore, as Scout, narrates the play along with Justin Mark, as her older brother, Jem, and Steven Lee Johnson, as Dill, their precocious summertime friend and neighbor. This is another change from the original story, where Scout is the sole narrator. However, Moore’s part still stands out as the youngest asking the most questions.
All three, played by young adults, are believable as young children in their speech, mannerisms, and energy.
The evil Ewells – both abusive father Bob, played by Joey Collins, and his terrorized daughter Mayella, played by Arianna Gayle Stucki – give chillingly powerful performances as so-called “poor white trash” who desperately want to hold onto what they deem as white superiority. Again, not an unfamiliar sentiment in today’s political divide.
Scenic Designer Miriam Buether’s set displays the poverty of the courthouse with broken windows and decaying walls. She cleverly suggests the Finch’s front porch by a piece rolled out on wheels which includes the essential bench and house façade.
The only drawback of this production is that it is staged in The Kennedy Center’s Opera House, a beautiful, albeit cavernous space – too large for the nuances of this play. The audience seats were filled to the brim, and I can imagine the viewers in the upper tiers might have struggled to see facial expressions.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ holds the record as the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history for good reason. This production will certainly follow in that tradition.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ will run from June 21 through July 10 in the Kennedy Center Opera House.