PROVIDENCE – When it was announced in early 2016 that an adaptation of Harper Lee’s benchmark novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was heading for the Broadway stage, it did not take much convincing to know that the play would be brilliant. They had me at Sorkin.
Aaron Sorkin is the fellow who wrote/created TV’s smartest, most acerbic dramas (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”) and has had some success of late on Broadway as well (“A Few Good Men,” “The Farnsworth Invention”). “To Kill a Mockingbird” broke box office records when it opened in 2018 and earned nine Tony Award nominations. It went on tour in 2022, and now this remarkable piece of storytelling has landed on our doorstep for a brief stay.
As many of us know from reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in junior high school, “To Kill a Mockingbird” offers us attorney Atticus Finch – one of the most heralded and heroic characters in the American literary canon. The author has Finch defend a Black man, Tom Robinson, after he is wrongly accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman in Depression-era Alabama. By doing so, Finch finds himself combating the community’s deeply entrenched racism and, for the greater good, knowingly and willingly alienates himself and his two young children from their friends and neighbors.
Sorkin’s adaptation pushes further on hot-topic issues than Lee was able to do while writing in the 1960s. He pushed so hard that he was sued by Lee’s estate for taking too many editorial liberties, which he absolutely does and with great dramatic effect. He beefs up the small roles given to Black characters (a poignant Robinson, played with immense dignity by Yaegel T. Welch, and a truth-telling Calpurnia, Finch’s household maid, played with perfect timing by Jacqueline Williams) and better represents their perspectives. And he casts a weary eye over the book’s idealistic portrayal of Finch (Richard Thomas, who is astounding in the role). Lee presented as virtuous the character’s belief in the nobility of all human beings – “there’s good in everyone,” Finch says – and his ability to empathize with even the most vile racists and hardened hearts in town. Sorkin boldly presents them as flaws.
While Lee took her time getting to the courtroom, which works well in print, Sorkin plunges right in, pulls right out and returns to it throughout the stage production, all the while building toward the dramatic outcome. He also tells the story through the innocent and intelligent eyes of Finch’s young daughter Scout (an energetic and engaging adult actor, Scout Backus), who is abetted by her brother Jeb and friend Dill (the superb adult actors Justin Mark and Steven Lee Johnson, respectively, who handle Sorkin’s subtle, well-placed humor with aplomb). Sorkin knows full well the power of breaking the fourth wall and directly engaging an audience, which Scout, Jeb and Dill do throughout the production.
Most of these featured actors and members of the sizable ensemble perform with a fine-tuned, elegant fluidity that can only be attained through years of working with each other in this production. And yet their work seems fresh and spontaneous. It’s a remarkable thing to watch.
This production also had me at Bart Sher, whose directorial attention to detail and ability to bring energy and dimension to any script are evident in recent revivals of classic musicals on Broadway, such as “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” His vision for “To Kill a Mockingbird” – a minimalistic and highly atmospheric staging of the work that helps turn the script into the memory play that Sorkin had in mind – has been beautifully executed by designers Miriam Buether (scenic) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting). The largely wooden set pieces that function as mere suggestions of a small town and the golden-brown sepia tones that reinforce the time and place of this story have been nicely transferred from the Broadway production to the national tour.
Perhaps Sorkin’s and Sher’s greatest contribution is establishing the gravitas that emanates from the stage, quickly fills the PPAC house and holds us captive for three hours. That alone is worth the price of admission.
BOB ABELMAN is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News.