COSTA MESA — DECEMBER 28, 2022
Two things to get straight: The play isn’t the book. And neither is it the beloved now 60-year old film version that won Gregory Peck an Oscar as Atticus Finch, the gentleman lawyer from small–town Maycomb who nearly started a riot by defending Tom Robinson, a black handyman falsely accused of raping a white woman.
Aaron Sorkin has adapted Harper Lee’s benchmark 1960 novel of growing up in a racially segregated, hate–charged, Depression–era Alabama so that it adheres to the granular specificity of the past while speaking to the harsh realities of a turbulent present. It’s a tricky, balancing act and Sorkin — in tandem with dynamic director Bartlett Sher and a flawless acting ensemble — never loses sight of making Lee’s tale thrillingly alive on stage. Brimming with humor, generous heart and gritty provocation, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is as timely as it is timeless. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, which stars Emmy Award winner Richard Thomas (“The Waltons,” Tony-nominated “The Little Foxes”), began December 27th and concludes January 8th at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
Months before opening night at the Shubert in 2018, “To Kill a Mockingbird” suffered contentious legal wrangling between producer Scott Rudin and the estate of Lee, who died in 2016, over depicting Atticus as someone less perfect and more human than “the most honest and decent person in Maycomb.” When the dust cleared, Atticus was no longer a gun owner with a penchant for drinking and cussing. But he wasn’t a paragon either. In a towering performance then from a never–better Jeff Daniels, then later Ed Harris and Greg Kinnear, the role of Atticus became a good man besieged by doubts, fears and flashes of righteous anger.
In point of fact, "To Kill a Mockingbird" preserves both the hopes and sentiments from a kinder, gentler, more-naive America. Within months after the classic movie was released in December 1962, John F. Kennedy would be assassinated. And nothing would ever be the same again — not after the deaths of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, not after the war in Vietnam, certainly not after September 11, 2001. The most hopeful development during that period for America was the civil rights movement, which dealt a series of legal and moral blows to racism. But "To Kill a Mockingbird," set in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1932, uses the realities of its time only as a backdrop for the portrait of a brave white liberal. The story, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a child.
Maycomb is evoked by director Sher as a tired old town where we visualize dirt roads, picket fences, climbing vines, front porches held up by pillars of brick, rocking chairs, and Panama hats. Scout (Melanie Moore) and her 10-year-old brother Jem (Justin Mark) live with their widowed father Atticus Finch (Mr. Thomas) and their housekeeper Calpurnia (an amazing Jacqueline Williams). They make friends with a new neighbor named "Dill" Harris (Steven Lee Johnson), who speaks with an expanded vocabulary, and is said to have been inspired by Harper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. Atticus goes off every morning to his law office downtown, and the children play through lazy hot days.
Their imagination is much occupied by the Radley house, right down the street, which seems always dark, shaded and closed. Jem tells Dill that Mr. Radley keeps his son Boo (Travis Johns) chained to a bed in the house, and describes Boo breathlessly: "Judging from his tracks, he's about six and a half feet tall. He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There's a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time." Of course, the first detail reveals Jem has never seen Boo.
Into this peaceful calm drops a thunderbolt. Atticus is asked by the town judge to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), who has been accused of raping a poor white girl named Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki). White opinion is of course much against the black man, who is presumed guilty, and Mayelle's father Bob (Joey Collins) pays an ominous call on Atticus, indirectly threatening his children. The children are also taunted at school, but Atticus warns them against retaliation or using racial comments or derogatory names. Especially with their brash Finch neighbor, Mrs. Henry Dubose (Mary Badham), who everyone regards as the meanest old woman who ever lived. After a particularly evil thrashing by the good neighbor, Jem promptly beheads her camellia bushes.
The trial, presided over by the hilarious David Manis as Judge Taylor, is riveting, especially when Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, takes the stand. As played by Ms. Stucki, she is a living illustration of pathos transmuted into rage. The courtroom scenes are the most celebrated in the play, and Atticus' summation to the jury is one of the greatest scenes in theater, but the all-white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty anyway. The verdict is greeted by an uncanny quiet: No whoops of triumph from Bob Ewell, no cries of protests. Only a few faded sobs from the distant gallery.
Later, Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: "The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn't stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man."
The payoff involves Ewell's later cowardly attack on Scout and Jem, and the sudden appearance of the mysterious Boo Radley (Travis Johns), to save them. Ewell is found dead with a knife under his ribs. Boo materializes inside the Finch house, is identified by Scout as her savior, and they're soon walking side by side to the front porch hand in hand. The sheriff decides that no good would be served by accusing Boo of the death of Ewell. That would be like "killing a mockingbird," and we know by now that you can shoot all the blue-jays you want, but not mockingbirds — because all they do is sing to bring music to the garden.
This is a tricky note to end on, because it brings Boo in literally from the wings as a distraction from the facts: An innocent black man was framed for a crime that never took place, he was convicted by a white jury in the face of overwhelming evidence, and he was shot dead in problematic circumstances. Now we are expected to accept Boo’s killing of Bob Ewell as well-deserved justice. Even the sheriff says, "There's a black man dead for no reason, and now the man responsible for it is dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time." But I doubt that either Tom Robinson or Bob Ewell would want to be buried by the other.
Elegiac and effective, it seems every ounce of savvy know-how available at the highest echelons of commercial theater has been applied. It is, for one thing, gorgeously atmospheric, and Director Sher, along with Scenic Designer Miriam Buether and Costumer Designer Ann Roth, has made sure that every movement, every perfectly cast face, every stage picture and costume tells the story so precisely that it would do so even without words.
Calpurnia, with a minimum limelight in the novel, also has gotten a bigger remake for the play. Bossy toward the children but deferential toward white adults, she serves in the play as Atticus’s foil and needling conscience. Mocking his argument that Maycomb needs more time to overcome racism, she says, “How much time would Maycomb like?” Their tart but loving squabbles remind Scout of hers with Jem: They behave, she realizes, like brother and sister.
Mr. Thomas’ unfussy mastery is useful throughout, especially in toning down some of Mr. Sorkin’s showier attempts to punch up the story. But only by underplaying Atticus’s “West Wing”-style summation in court — “We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding!” — does Mr. Thomas avoid the appearance of giving a speech to television cameras from the future.
Mr. Sorkin, however, wants a total hero and does gets one. When Bob Ewell, the father of the woman supposedly raped, shows up on the Finches’ porch to make threats, Atticus does some kind of flip-and-fold maneuver on him, leaving him groaning in pain. We accept this not only because it’s satisfying, but because Mr. Sorkin’s Ewell (Mr. Collins at his most feral) is not merely a violent drunk and a racist but a foaming-at-the-mouth monstrosity.
While Lee took her time getting to the courthouse drama, Sorkin lunges headlong into the fray. And, under Sher’s urgent direction, the experience is electrifying. Racism is on trial here, and so is white accommodation, of which Atticus is not entirely blameless. Finch asks his children to walk in the shoes of another person before condemning him. But does that justify Bob Ewell, the abusive father who forces his daughter Mayella to frame Tom Robinson for a rape he never committed?
Playing Atticus like a gathering storm, Richard Thomas is magnificent at showing the growing passion of a lawyer feeling the boot of bigotry on his neck, reminding us that the fight against racism is blisteringly relevant. Here, Sorkin sets a new gold standard for adapting one generation’s cry from the heart to another’s. And the result is unmissable and unforgettable.
SEGERSTROM CENTER FOR THE ARTS PRESENTS, HARPER LEE’S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; A new play by Aaron Sorkin; Direction: Bartlett Sher. Executive Producer: Seth Wenig. Original Music: Adam Guettel. Music Director: Kimberly Grigsby. Scenic Design: Miriam Buether. Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton. Sound Design: Scott Lehrer. Costume Design: Ann Roth. Hair & Wig Design: Campbell Young Associates. Production Stage Manager: Brian J. L’ecuyer.
WITH: Richard Thomas; Melanie Moore; Jacqueline Williams; Justin Mark; Yaegel T. Welch; Steven Lee Johnson; Joey Collins; David Manis; Luke Smith; Arianna Gayle Stucki; David Christopher Wells; Jeff Still; Liv Roth; Travis Johns; Morgan Bernhard; Denise Cormier; Christopher R. Ellis; Stephen Elrod; Glenn Fleary; Maeve Moynihan; Daniel Neale; Dorcas Sowunmi; Greg Wood; Mary Badham; Mariah Lee; Hollis Duggans-Queenss.
“TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” runs December 27th through January 8th with performances on Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 7:30PM, and Sundays at 1PM and 6:30PM at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Tickets may be purchased at www.scfta.org.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Julieta Cervantes