By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
Aaron Sorkin and Bartlett Sher have made an impressive team. In fact, their partnership has resulted in the greatest box office for a Broadway play ever with the 2018 Sorkin adaption and Sher-directed production of Harper Lee’s most successful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The show premiered at the Shubert Theatre in December of 2018 and pulled in more than $1 million in gross revenues per week, until the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020. When it reopened in October of 2021, two of its original cast members, Tony-nominated Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch and Celia Keenan-Bolger in her Tony-winning role as Scout, were back. A shutdown in January of 2022 was only supposed to be temporary, but controversial producer Scott Rudin, reeling from an unflattering exposé in the media reporting an alleged history of abusive and tyrannical behavior, announced later in July that the closure was permanent.
By then, a national tour had already been announced prior to the shutdown, but it actually didn’t get underway until March of 2022, two years after the start of the Broadway lockdown.
Richard Thomas, who made a name as a TV actor, most notably as John-Boy in “The Waltons,” was selected to take over the leading role of lawyer Atticus Finch, a man who must defend a Black cripple accused of rape by a dysfunctional family of poor Whites. Serving as the narrator of the work, Scout (Melanie Moore) recounts the heroic figure who is her father; the tentative, but determined behavior of her older brother Jem (Justin Mark); the bombastic nature of their young summer visitor Dill (Steven Lee Johnson); and the proud and grounded ministrations of her housekeeper Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams).
With an unusual choice of Southern dialect most of the time on stage, Moore occasionally lapses into an adult version of herself, when she comments on the memories she is presenting. In Sorkin’s adaptation of Atticus, the Maycomb, Alabama country lawyer is far less heroic than the idealistic figure painted in Lee’s original novel. It was the subject of a lawsuit when Lee’s estate accused the producers and Sorkin early in the run of removing much of the heroic aura surrounding Atticus. The suit was settled fairly quickly.
The defendant, the seemingly innocent Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welsh) the accusatory Mayella Ewell (Ariana Gayle Stucki) and her abusive, alcoholic father Bob Ewell (Joey Collins); the pompous and sleazy prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Luke Smith), the vacillating Judge Taylor (David Manis) and the aggrieved members of the Robinson family and the extended Black community all play out in the courtroom drama that starts and stops in fits as Scout reveals aspects of her life as a youngster.
Sorkin expanded the role of Calpurina, allowing her to be more than a housekeeper. She acts as his moral compass at times reminding him of the humanity of those whose skin are a darker shade than those of the Finches and others. Williams portrays her character with compassion towards the innocent young ones and disdain for the White adults who perpetuate their racist system of prejudice in the small Alabama town of the Great Depression.
Jeff Still, a superb actor, portrays Link Deas, a cotton buyer with a reputation as the town drunk due to his constantly holding a paper bag containing a bottle. There are many layers to his character, which he reveals to the three youngsters, but it is a device Sorkin uses to inform the audience of the dangers inherent in miscegenation and social interaction between the races.
Travis Johns, who portrays Mr Cunningham, a poor farmer who pays Atticus Finch with chickens and produce for his legal work early in Act One, returns later in the role of Arthur “Boo”Radley, a mysterious, troubled young man whom the children attempt to lure out of hiding.
Thomas steps into the critical role of Atticus as easily as one might don a nice pair of well-worn shoes. His down home demeanor and ready smile make him a charming and convincing defense lawyer in the courtroom and his considered, deliberate actions at home make him a wise and engaging father figure at home.
Mary Badham, the original Scout in the 1962 movie that garnered her an Academy Award nomination, is attached to the show as Mrs. Henry Dubose, a bitter, old woman who gives little consideration to people of color or those who have yet to reach the age of maturity. Although she comes across as mean-spirited, Atticus finds a way to explain her actions as having been the cause of her self medicating.
The scenic design by Miriam Buether is sparse, but functional and the lighting designs by Jennifer Tipton are very effective in scenes suggesting interiors as well as those that depict the outdoors. Ann Roth’s outstanding period costumes are complemented by the hair and wigs designed by Campbell Young Associates. Scott Lehrer’s sound designs are coupled nicely throughout the two acts with accompanying original music written by Broadway veteran Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza).
The two words Sorkin uses as a device by Scout to close both acts is the catchphrase “All Rise!” It refers to both the courtroom order for respect as well as the attempt for man to rise above his baser nature and treat his fellow creatures with equal justice and opportunity. The phrase does give the audience a semblance of hope at play’s end that such kind and loving acts may eventually be possible.
The national tour of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bartlett Sher, played at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans from May 30 to June 4. The tour continues with dates booked for theaters across the country from now through June of 2024.