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Theatre in Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (Shubert Theatre)

Erin Wilhelmi. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

As you may have read, Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird had a somewhat fraught birth, what with the Harper Lee estate objecting to some of the changes the playwright brought to the novel. Among other things, it was insisted that Atticus Finch, the saintly hero, was never meant to curse or to enjoy a little sip of John Barleycorn. So strenuous were the objections to these innovations that the interested parties nearly ended up in court, with producer Scott Rudin holding out the possibility of a staged reading for the presiding judge. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and some old-fashioned horse-trading ensued. If you find yourself at the Shubert one of these nights, you'll discover that Atticus' vocabulary is as pure as the driven snow, his lips untainted by liquor. Oh well; Maycomb, Alabama, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, was probably dry in 1934 anyway.

However, watching Sorkin's painstaking, slyly assembled, and altogether heart-wrenching dramatization, it's hard not to feel that the keepers of the Harper Lee flame weren't euchred into giving away the store while holding on to a few unimportant items of merchandise. That's because the Broadway To Kill a Mockingbird draws its power in direct relation to how much it deviates from a novel that holds a sacrosanct place on the shelf of American classics. Sorkin may have adhered to the letter of the restrictions placed upon him, but he has violated their spirit, and his play is all the better for it.

Flannery O'Connor got it right: "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book," she wrote, back when To Kill a Mockingbird was first ascending the bestseller list. Read today, it's hard to disagree. There's a reason that it is so prevalent in high school and middle school curricula; in a voice suitable for telling stories on a lazy summer afternoon, it carefully spoon-feeds the reader its messages of racial brotherhood and personal honor, garnished with bits of local Dixie color. It's an enjoyable experience, but hardly an adult one. That it goes down like a nice, hot cup of cocoa probably explains why millions of readers have taken it to heart: It presents racial hatred as endemic to another time and place, allowing one to feel virtuous without having to confront thorny questions about the here and now.

For the first thirty or forty minutes, Sorkin seems to be wrestling to gain control of the novel's elements, especially the sheer necessity of introducing its vast gallery of characters. Surprisingly, he plays down the early passages focused on Boo Radley, the tragic recluse who is an object of fear and loathing to Maycomb's younger set. The playwright knows what he is doing, however: From the start, he goes about his business methodically, carefully laying the groundwork for a drama that has something pertinent and troubling to say to audiences in 2019. He also provides a strongly theatrical framework for Lee's rather-more-slowly paced narrative: The play immediately introduces a note of mystery, having Scout, one of three young narrators, wonder aloud, with all the skepticism an eleven-year-old girl can muster, about a newspaper report stating that a man named Bob Ewell died while falling on his knife. Whether or not you're familiar with the book, it's a strong, provocative opening, a clear admission that we have entered a court of inquiry.

I choose those last words carefully. Sorkin weaves the rest of the novel -- the scenes focusing on Scout; her brother, Jem; and Dill, their summertime visitor -- around the rape trial that is the book's central event. (The victim is Mayella, daughter of Bob Ewell.) It's a smart decision: The playwright kicked off his career with a rattling courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, and here the scenes on the witness stand practically boil over with tension. Inserting the trial into the action so early also dispenses with the book's rambling, anecdotal tone, transforming it into the story of a man who exposes his community's prejudices, to devastating effect.

The defendant, Tom Robinson, is a quiet-living family man who has the bad fortune to be black in Depression-era Alabama. He has been accused of assaulting the white Mayella, who lives in a tar paper shack with her abusive father and her many siblings. Atticus -- an estate lawyer whose ingrained liberalism is tolerated by his fellow citizens, partly because he is a widower with two children and partly because he never makes any trouble -- wants no part of the case. But the crafty Judge Taylor drafts him for the job, knowing that Atticus' methodical manner is best suited to making a defense that nobody in Macomb wants to hear. Before the trial is over, Atticus will have laid bare the sheer absurdity of the charges against Tom, who is physically incapable of committing the crime with which he is charged; he will also cast a light on the sins eating away at the Ewells, which the accusation against Tom is designed to hide. And he will trigger a thirst for revenge in Bob Ewell that will put Scout and Jem in mortal danger.

By reshaping the action, eliminating and/or playing down some of the more picturesque supporting characters, and writing such vivid, muscular courtroom confrontations, Sorkin goes a long way toward making To Kill a Mockingbird his own. He goes further by giving the character of Calpurnia, the Finches' black housekeeper, a mind and tongue of her own; largely a background presence in the novel, she is here unafraid to challenge Atticus if she thinks he is being patronizing or wrongheaded. The verdict from the novel is retained, but Sorkin reshapes the terms of it -- in the play, it is arrived at with alarming speed -- handing Atticus a total moral defeat. And the slightly haloed figure of the book is significantly different from the man onstage, who is forced to face the possibility that his good intentions are for naught in a place where the game is rigged against anyone who isn't white.

Sorkin has the right director in Bartlett Sher, whose patient, slow-building approach allows the drama to detonate in its own time. Sher has assembled an extraordinary company of players, down to the smallest role. It's no surprise that the role of Atticus fits Jeff Daniels so well, but it's a pleasure to report the many subtleties and shadings he brings to a character shaped by personal tragedy and his keen awareness of Maycomb's blinkered values. And when, in the courtroom, he presents a defense that is, essentially, an invitation to his fellow townspeople to look into the mirror and see their prejudices, the rafters rattle with his prophetic fury. Some of Daniels' most powerful moments come late in the second act when, stunned by the trial's outcome and feeling under siege, he lashes out, needlessly forcing Dill, a gentle fantasist, to admit the many lies he has spun about the father he has never known; even more moving is the spontaneous kiss on the head that Atticus gives the boy after a moment of reconciliation. (Some of his most effective moments are silent, as when he is seen sitting at Jem's bedside, anxiously keeping watch on his wounded son, who has been mysteriously assaulted.) Safe to say that all thoughts of Gregory Peck's celebrated interpretation of Atticus in the 1962 film are dispelled seconds after Daniels first appears.

Sher and Sorkin have taken the unusual decision to cast the roles of Scout, Jem, and Dill with adult actors, a strategy that pays off. Celia Keenan-Bolger, who, in her forties, retains a preternaturally youthful air, is a first-rate Scout, a natural tomboy with a wary, watchful manner and a disarmingly direct way with the truth. Will Pullen's Jem is caught poignantly between youth and manhood, aware of the peril that the trial brings to his family but uncertain what to do about it. Gideon Glick's Dill is a fey, funny creature, his overlay of Southern manners designed to protect him from admitting the sordid details of his upbringing, which include an irresponsible, man-dependent mother. In Sher's staging, the three young people are allowed to wander through the trial scenes, getting an up-close view of the structure of injustice and moral equivocation the adults of Maycomb have erected for themselves; the trial provides them with a dismaying moral education.

Other standouts in the cast include Gbenga Akinnagbe, a figure of quiet dignity as Tom Robinson, especially when accidently admitting the motivation -- a revelation of simple kindness -- that will doom his chances for acquittal; Stark Sands, courtly and armed with a killer instinct as the prosecuting attorney; Frederick Weller, oozing grievance and covert violence as the surly, pathetic Bob Ewell; Dakin Matthews, slyly harvesting laughs as the sleepy-eyed Judge Taylor; and Neal Huff, a spectral presence as a town outcast and alleged drunk, who harbors a secret that makes him a witness the jury refuses to trust. Erin Wilhelmi gives the performance of her career to date as Mayella, in whom anger, shame, and guilt form a toxic stew; she is both victim and abuser, clinging desperately to any shred of dignity within her grasp. LaTanya Richardson Jackson is towering as Calpurnia, who eloquently, devastatingly notes that Atticus' live-and-let-live philosophy often ends up enabling the town's most noxious racists.

Aside from the slow start, the production has other occasional bumps. Sher, whose productions sometimes suffer from iffy or intrusive design ideas, has allowed Miriam Buether to set the action in what appears to be a disused, decaying factory, moving in and out elaborate representations of the Finch home and courtroom as needed. It's a peculiar notion, and you may find yourself moderately distracted by the constant rearranging of the scenery. Much more solid are Jennifer Tipton's lighting and Scott Lehrer's sound design, which provides good reinforcement for Adam Guettel's incidental music. Ann Roth's costumes are an intensively detailed study that reveals volumes about each character, especially his or her social class and economic status; she remains one of the most proficient designers working today.

And, by the time the drama reaches its climax, Sher deftly arranges the breathtaking reveal of Boo Radley, who, having been talked about all evening, intervenes to save Scout and Jem from a vicious revenge-seeker. It's here that Lee and Sorkin arrive at the same shattering conclusion: Order is restored to Maycomb, but only of a sort. A wrongful verdict has been issued, a defendant has met with tragedy, and an act of manslaughter or self-defense (depending on how you look at it) is hushed up to protect the innocent. And, of course, for the town's black community, justice must again wait for another day.

Still, there's little doubt that this Mockingbird has been cannily re-engineered for modern audiences, shaking some of the dust, and most of the reverence, off it and giving it a voice that sounds distinctly of today. The three young people remain at the center of the story, and we are fully made aware of their bruising tutorial in the world's cruelly exclusionary ways, but this a Mockingbird that speaks directly to the adults in the audience. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2019)

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