By Bill Hirschman
Other than the outlines of Harper Lee’s plot, do not go to the superb national tour of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Broward Center expecting echoes of the cherished movie.
Playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have pointedly reimagined the style, structure, approach, even subtle thematic emphases to create their own incisive offering, well-distanced from the 1962 film by Horton Foote and Robert Mulligan.
The star Richard Thomas, justifiably engaging and winning, understandably delivers a significantly different character from the darker, more intense but iconic performance of Gregory Peck. The children are adults extensively narrating the story through the fourth wall. Atticus delivers much of his moving closing arguments directly to the audience as stand-ins for the jury.
But the scores of alterations give the audience the rewards of reevaluating the work as something fresh and new, like going to see a unique take on Hamlet.
It also challenges the audience every moment – and this is a genuine challenge – to stick that indelible film and even Lee’s beloved novel into a safe deposit box while appreciating this new vision on its own considerable merits. It would be interesting to know how audience members react if they have no familiarity at all with the work.
For those few who know little about the story, it’s 1934 in the small agricultural backwater town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the depths of the Depression. Lawyer and widower Atticus Finch is financially struggling, working land sales and wills, and raising his son Jem and daughter Scout.
A judge persuades him to defend a black fieldhand, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of beating and raping Mayella Ewell, a 19-year-old generously described as white trash. Her accusation of Tom, with whom she had been toying for weeks by asking him to help her with chores, is disguising the fact that she was actually attacked for the umpteeneth time by her violent, alcoholic and abusive father, Bob.
Atticus — an innately decent man who has infinite patience and a commitment to justice — reluctantly agrees to defend Tom when no one else will come to his defense in what is a death penalty case. The ensuing tragic trial, which illuminates and indicts the community’s racism, is interspersed with scenes of the youngsters’ watching the tumult.
Perhaps the most notable difference from the film, but perfectly supported by every aspect of this production, is that Atticus changes during the story. He spends much of the journey with optimistic faith in the underlying decency of his neighbors and human beings in general. It’s not that his upbeat smile and gentle manner are naïve, but until now, only the death of his wife has really tested that. He emerges from this ordeal of death, racism and unanswered injustice with some of that world view eroded if not banished.
But if prejudice and race were integral underpinnings of the film and novel, here they are elevated to a primary reason for the work. When Atticus asks Tom whether he did what he is accused of, Robinson responds with the kind of quiet bitterness reflecting a clear knowledge of life as it is: “I was guilty the moment I was accused.”
Chief villain Bob Ewell is given several opportunities to spew unvarnished unapologetic racial hatred, which is only eclipsed by (minor spoiler alert) the outraged outburst by Mayella when her lies are exposed on the stand.
Black housekeeper Calpurnia becomes a more significant role in providing Atticus someone he can be honest with in private and who, indeed, pushes back on his trusting statements.
In this script, despite the lack of evidence, Mayella’s perjury and simple common sense that Tom couldn’t physically commit the crimes, he is convicted at the last minute when he claims that he went to help Mayella because he felt sorry for her. A white woman. That’s the death of any fair verdict.
Sorkin, best known for his extensive television work like The West Wing, has theater credentials including his first major success on stage, the much-lauded original version of A Few Good Men.
Here, he smoothly weaves passionate speeches, plain folks’ conversation and literate reminiscences with his language underscoring his emphasis that the town and the time housed four different class divisions.
He has completely restructured the piece to grab the audience as if it was a movie: He follows Scout’s opening monologue with the first witness in the courtroom. He then breaks up the flow of the courtroom proceedings throughout. The chronology of the story is tossed in the trash, so it does help if you’ve read the novel or seen the film.
On occasion, those dramaturgical choices are brilliant. Notably, the 90-minute first act ends completely out of timeline with the tense scene in which Atticus means to reason with a lynch mob on the porch of the county jail. In this version, the pack armed with shotguns and carrying a coil of rope are wearing home-made hoods made from burlap bags. The crisis is only defused when the naïve Scout recognizes one of the assailants and asks him to say hello to his child for her. The performances and the staging are frightening and moving, one of the finest scenes of the evening.
It’s also indicative of the talent of Sher, one of mainstream theater’s most skilled directors. He paces each moment carefully, from sudden rushes of emotion to brief silences rife with emotion and meaning. Since the narrating “youngsters” are recounting the recollected past, they often walk through and around the action such as the courtroom scenes as unseen observers from the future.
Thomas, whose theater credits are the equal of those on television, works with Sher and Sorkin to portray a genuinely genial, open-hearted character whose consistent smile and persona silently exudes his compassionate belief that people are fundamentally good. More than once, he tells his children they have to get inside someone’s skin before judging them, even after Ewell threatens his life and rants racial invective. He simply does not recognize the depth and malignity of the prejudice in his community or in some people in general.
If this is a more amiable laid-back figure than Peck, it makes more striking the rare times when Atticus lets loose: the cross-examination of Mayella and the rousing closing arguments.
The other performances are laudable. Melanie Moore’s Scout lands somewhere between the adult remembering her childhood and portraying that childhood. While she genuinely does a fine job, she (and the script) never quite makes her convincing at either end of the age spectrum.
Tom’s testimony on the stand is a growing storm thanks to Yaegel T. Welch’s tightly controlled then final unfettered explosion with the feeling sorry sentence, which he knows dooms him.
A stunning Arianna Gayle Stucki becomes Mayella under Sher’s direction. At first, on the stand, she submerges any sign of life inside a straitjacket of fear. Then once she is exposed in front of the community as someone who was trying to seduce a black man, Stucki’s Mayella explodes in tornadic vindictive fury at the misery of her life, which she can now blame not on herself or her father, but on a black man.
As her father Bob Ewell, Joey Collins is chillingly venal as racism incarnate. Understudy Daniel Neale was filling in Wednesday night as Jem, doing a solid job showing the boy’s maturation during the crisis. Jacqueline Williams’ Calpurnia capably gives Atticus someone to be open with and adds an unfettered Black voice to the events.
If you have only read the book, you will be pleased that Sorkin resurrects the character of Link Deas, Tom’s employer where he was crippled as a child. It digs ever deeper into Sorkin’s contention that people are not as simple as they seem since Deas, reputedly the town drunk, is not at all an alcoholic and is more compassionate than many of his neighbors. Actor Jeff Still invests him with the sadness of someone who has retreated from society for ills he sees in himself and them, and hid out by allowing rumors and misperceptions to thrive.
Side note: Mrs. Dubose, the mean neighbor and a recovering morphine addict, is played by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film. She made a few other movies, then became an art restorer, college testing coordinator and traveled the world recalling her experiences on the film and expounding on the book’s messages of tolerance and compassion.
The production does have strange choices that could be debatable. While evocative period set pieces are rolled on (there must be quite a budget just for casters), the production is set in a three-story-tall abandoned factory with towering battered walls mold green and mottled with age – something that has no connection whatsoever unless you can believe the tiny agricultural town had a major manufacturer once upon a time.
Also, the play underscores that Atticus is actually a civil lawyer dealing with land sales and wills. His ability to suddenly become a trial-savvy Perry Mason can only be chalked up to Atticus’ intelligence and power of observation.
Of course, the costumes, are period perfect and represent a wide array of socio-economic backgrounds. Also honor is due to the mood-enhancing lighting and perfect sound. The music – protracted mournful bass notes, some pseudo-country guitar — comes from Adam Guettel (Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins).
Interestingly, Broward Across America and the presenting houses down here rarely offer a straight play in their season. But audiences accustomed to Wicked or Hamilton were clearly enraptured Wednesday night and even gave three ovations to cap various speeches such as Atticus’ closing argument.
To Kill a Mockingbird plays through April 9 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale. Shows at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Visit BrowardCenter.org or call (954) 462-0222; orders for groups of 10 or more call (954) 660-6307. Running time approximately two hours, 50 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. Prices range from $35 to $150 with a select number of premium seats available from $229 for all performances.