Exit Lines: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

An American classic comes to Broadway.

There’s been so much drama regarding Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that the actual show may get lost in all the headlines. (There’s this, and this, and this.) Once you’ve gotten through all that hubbub, however, book your tickets to what’s become a bonafide theatrical event. It’s excellent.

Mostly.

Lee’s 1960 novel, the basis of the Oscar-winning 1962 film, needs no introduction. In all the best ways, it plays to Sorkin’s strengths: It’s a courtroom thriller at its core, and A Few Good Men is no slouch where courtroom thrillers are concerned.  The material has been reshaped around tense and exciting procedural sequences, and the show crackles whenever race and rape are on trial in the fictional (but achingly real) Maycomb, AL, circa 1934. (That things haven’t necessarily changed all that much is something that the playwright need not underline.)

Under the sensitive, searching direction of the great Bartlett Sher (of South Pacific, Awake and Sing!, and the current revival of My Fair Lady) the book has been reconceived as a memory play, and its three children (siblings Scout and Jem and their new friend Dill) are played by adult actors. This conceit can be difficult to pull off and a show dead in the water if it doesn’t work, but when your actors are as good as as Celia Keenan-Bolger (Scout), Will Pullen (Jem), and Gideon Glick (Dill), all three carefully keeping their feet in the worlds of preadolescents and adults, it powers past mere gimmickry. Special mention must be made of Glick, an actor who left an indelible impression as a  struggling gay man in the dramedy Significant Other a few seasons back; cast in the “Truman Capote part” (the two authors were childhood friends), he quite movingly brings another kind of difference to a story of prejudice and outcasts.

Then again the entire sprawling cast is outstanding, full of “that guys!” in on the New York theatre scene, from Frederick Weller as the hissable Bob Ewell to Dakin Matthews as the sleepy judge (who is alert at just the right times) and Phyllis Somerville as the crabby Mrs. Dubose. Sher’s shadowy staging owes nothing to the famous film, with scenic designer Miriam Buether and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton thinking in terms of stage visuals. Though the industrial backdrop suggests Detroit rather than Alabama, there’s just enough scenery to support a reminiscence of bygone events, and no more. Likewise a small band unobtrusively plays Adam Guettel’s  plaintive musical accompaniment, an element that sound designer Scott Lehrer communicates with perfect pitch. Based on a book that looms large in our cultural consciousness, To Kill a Mockingbird is a big show presented as intimately as possible.

But Sorkin stumbles trying to update its racial politics. I have no objection to giving the accused Tom (Gbenga Akinnagbe) a greater stake in his own fate, by “opening out” the character a bit as his life hangs in the balance. Expanding the role of Calpurnia, the Finch family maid, is however deeply problematic, though no fault of the formidable LaTanya Richardson Jackson. What Sorkin is probing is the limit of empathy, with Atticus the lawyer taking a “both sides” approach to Tom’s trial and Calpurnia urging sterner rebuke of the town’s deeply entrenched racism. Well, OK–but having the characters argue the term “passive aggressive,” and giving Calpurnia a few lines of Nietzsche, clearly wasn’t the best way to go. Sorkin’s broadening is acceptable (it’s adaptation, not transcription); his dialogue, tin-eared and faintly embarrassing.

I haven’t yet mentioned Jeff Daniels in the role of a lifetime, and on some level this must please this gifted, modest actor. Gregory Peck brought star-powered rectitude to his portrayal; Daniels scales his performance to that of the lead of an ensemble, a rewarding difference. His Atticus is a cog in a wheel that stops only briefly when he offers Tom a stronger-than-absolutely-necessary defense; the fallout is immense, yet the wheel continues to turn. To Kill a Mockingbird has familial warmth and Southern humor; in this retelling, however, there’s no lasting justice, only the memory of justice.