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A CurtainUp Review
To Kill a Mockingbird
By Elyse Sommer
Unlike many successful novelists, Lee had no interest in adapting her book for either stage or screen. However she welcomed its dramatic potential being realized by others. She approved both Horton Foote's script for the 1962 Oscar winning film starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation that is still frequently used (As in the 2011 production reviewed by Simon Saltzman in New Jersey and the one reviewed by Lizzie Loverige in London).
While Lee was still alive to sanction a new stage version by Aaron Sorkin, she died before his script was finalized and ready to go into production, Sorkin's changes to make the story more relevant for the present did create a much publicized legal controversy with her estate —a controversy that was settled in time to enable the launch to proceed at the Shubert Theater and become one of the biggest hits of the current Broadway season. Deservedly so!.
I still love Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning Atticus Finch and as soon as time permits, plan to watch it again on one of the streaming services where it's still available. I also think Harper Lee's novel deserved its Pulitzer. It's indeed a classic coming of age story with a beguiling main character — Mary Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout— to serve as the reader's conduit to life in a small Alabama town in 1935.
Fortunately, African-Americans have made great strides since Lee's Tom Robinson was convicted of a crime he didn't commit and killed before Atticus Finch could activate a retrial. Unfortunately, racial injustices and dangerous racist groups are still part of today's American social landscape. Thus any new dramatization of the iconic Lee novel calls for some drastic diddling with text and presentation. Sorkin has managed to do so dynamically, without any disrespect to either the novel or the movie that inform most of our memories.
Undoubtedly purists will miss some of the characters who have been eliminated. They'll also need to get used to the casting of adult actors (Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, Will Pullen as her older brother Jem and Gideon Glick as their pal and summer visitor to Mayburn Dill Harris) to play the three children; also Sorkin's focusing on Atticus as the character whose coming to realize" journey this now is.
And so, gone is the neighbor Miss Maudie who in the book was something of a one-person chorus endorsing Atticus's belief in the essential goodness of everyone. Since Atticus now speaks for himself, Miss Maudie is no longer needed to give voice to his comment about it being a sin to kill the titular mockingbird which unlike more predatory birds, had only one purpose: to make music for us to enjoy.
That symbolic quote is now distilled into Atticus's summation speech at Tom Robinson's trial. But the symbolism of not one but two songbirds — the mockinbird that gave the book its title and the Finch who provides the surname for Atticus and his children — has not gone missing. There are abundant other innovations for bringing Lee's story to vivid and contemporary dramatic life
Despite the updating, Sorkin and Director Bartlett Sher aren't aiming for a Ivan Van Hove-y approach. The major character and plot twists most theatergoers will be familiar with from the book and/or the Horton Foote scripted movie are all in place at the Shubert Theater — but with a distinctive shift in the timing and focus in which it all unfolds.
The setting is still the heavily racist town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935, which means that Atticus Finch risks condemnation for defending a black man accused of raping a local white girl. Though Lee's plot revolved around that trial— its inevitable unjust outcome and its effect on Atticus and his children — she didn't rush her readers inside that courtroom.
Not so this Mockingbird!
We're taken into that volatile set-up immediately after the houselights dim and Scout appears in a preamble that establishes her as a continuing narrative presence. Sorkin's script as directed by Director Bartlett Sher travels back and forth between the courtroom drama and the play's more personal aspects.
With Atticus as our central character and thus now having to let go of his idealistic belief system, the challenges for doing so come mostly from his interactions with his children, especially his son. And, in keeping with our times, the two main black characters —the housekeeper Calpurnia (Tanya Richardson Jackson) and the unjustly accused Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) have been given a chance to have their say.
Probably this production's most drastic, and to my surprise and delight, most effective change from previous dramatizations is the casting of adult actors to play the Finch children(Celia Keenan-Bolger) and her brother Jem Finch(Will Pullen), and their friend Dill Harris (Gideon Glick). Though I usually find this off-putting and gimmicky, it's not a gimmick here. Thanks to the superb performances of the three actors this often risky casting really pays off beautifully.
Keenan-Bolger's perceptively narrating and physically amazing Scout adds a rich new dimension to this demanding role. She's likely to be the first actress to earn a Tony Best Actress nomination for portraying a character previously played by a child. (Actually 10-year-old Mary Badham who played Scout in the movie, did nab an Oscar nomination).
The one ghost most difficult for any new production to wrestle down is Gregory Peck's unforgettable Atticus Finch. But to once again prove that a really fine role doesn't belong only to the actor originating it (why else would we have so many Hamlets and Lears?), we have Jeff Daniels as a truly satisfying Atticus Finch. His Atticus perfectly blends moral goodness and paternal wisdom. Daniels is very much his own Atticus, less a formidable moral hero than a folksy guy trying to do the right thing but loathe to leave the comfort zone of his tolerant acceptance of his town's attitudes and customs.
Bartlett Sher also draws terrific performances from other members of the large cast populating the stage. Standouts include Frederick Weller as the scarily detestable bigot Bob Ewell, Erin Wilhelm as his abused daughter Mayella, Dakin Watkins as a delightfully humorous Judge Thomas, Danny Wolahan as Boo Radley. Also well defined and portrayed are minor characters like Ewell's more upscale moral counterpart, Mrs.Dubose (Phyllis Sommerville), and Link Deas (Heil Huff). While Atticus and the children are the play's heart and soul, the entire ensemble enhances this rich new evocation of the novel.
Mr. Bartlett's crafts team matches the excellence of his actors. Miriam Buether has created a most effective theatrical environment for the various locales. The tables and chairs being rolled on and off the stage for the courtroom scenes by the cast initially feels a little too loud and clunky. But it doesn't take long for Buether to turn the scene to scene shifts into wizardly effectiveness. Every scene is expertly lit by Jennifer Tipton, and the cast is aptly outfitted by veteran stage and screen costumer Ann Roth. The specially commissioned incidental music by Adam Guettel is played at opposite ends of the stage by by organist and music director Kimberly Grisby and guitarist Allen Tedder.
With their smartly restructured production, Sorkin, Sher and this cast have given Broadway theater goers an exciting, newly relevant experience— a meaty, grand entertainment not often offered at a time when theater offerings are dominated by minimally cast and staged 90 minute plays.
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To Kill A Mockingbird
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Harper Lee ovel
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Cast (In order of appearance):Celia Keenan-Bolger (Scout Finch), Will Pullen ((Jem Finch), Gideon Glick (Dill Harris), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Tom Robinson),Stark Sands (Horace Gilmer),Danny McCarthy (Sheriff Heck Tate),Frederick Weller (Bob Ewell), Erin Wilhelm (Mayella Ewell), Latanya Richardson Jackson (Calpurnia),Jeff Daniels (Atticus Finch), Dakin Matthews (Judge Taylor),Liv Rooth (Miss Stephanie, also Dill's Mother), Phyllis Somerville (Mrs. Henry DuBose), Neal Huff (Link Deas),Danny Wolohan (Bo Radley)
Scenic Design by Miriam Buether
Costume Design by Ann Roth
Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton
Sound Design by Scott Lehrer
Original incidental score by Adam Guettel, performed at stage left and right by music director Kimberly Grigsby (pump organ) and Allen Tedder (guitar).
Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates
roduction Stage Manager: J. Jason Daunter
Stage Manager: Rachel Zack
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission.
Shubert Theatre 225 West 44th Street
From 11/01/18; opening 12/13/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on 1/15/19g
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