A group of klansmen aim to have Tom Robinson executed before he gets a fair trial. A black man accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town in the 1930s, Robinson may only have his attorney, Atticus Finch, holding the noose between him. When Atticus’ children – Jem and Scooter – rush to the scene to protect their father, the viciousness is there and the violence is at hand.
Childhood innocence has been incorporated into Aaron Sorkin’s reimagining of “To Kill a Mockingbird” – as it recurs on the show, now until April 17 at the Citizens Bank Opera House. Scouts defuse the mob’s anger by recognizing the voice of a masked gang member as the father of a classmate. She subdues the man’s bloodlust with a simple request, asking him to say hello to her son on her behalf. Suddenly, Atticus’s wisdom was revealed.
“Mobs are places where people use to relax their conscience,” he told his daughter Scooter. “The mob acted out of emotion, lacked facts, lacked thinking, and mostly lacked responsibility. What they got in return was anonymity. Conscience can be exhausting.”
There is a prescient sadness to this drama. It solves the problem we face right now: a justice system riddled with inequalities, eager to find simple answers through blunt and bloody force. It provides a flash of wisdom, but often returns to confusion, confusion.
Marketing materials for the Broadway tour advertised it as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But proponents of Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel will find less innocence and certainty here. Fans of the 1962 Oscar-winning film will find the Atticus lacking Gregory Peck’s Lincoln flair. This is by design.
On the tour, veteran actor Richard Thomas played Atticus perfectly. He is an academically minded gentleman who is often worthless in the real world. His optimism is untouched, his innocence is epicly grand. Many of the show’s great moments see Atticus being pulled back to reality by his black butler, Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams, in another perfect performance), who is forced to face it without rest.
“I believe in respect,” Atticus said of Carbonia. She replied: “It doesn’t matter who you are doing it with disrespect.”
Where the show is really reminiscent of a novel is its ability to cram endless hardships into a single story—even if Sorkin’s version strikes a different balance in what difficulty it focuses on. Like the novel, the new show uses the children’s point of view – here are Scott (Melanie Moore), Jem (Justin Mark) and neighbor Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) ) – piece together a tragedy beyond their intellectual comprehension but within their emotional comprehension. Set in Tom Robinson’s doomed trial from the start, the show delves into the insidious tentacles of systemic racism, child abuse, incest, alienation, the origins and legacy of poverty, and the deaths of countless vantage points.
Sorkin’s play is full of pain, history and humor, and can be embarrassing at times — on Wednesday, audience members giggled at the gallows-like humor that brought others to tears. But that seems to be the goal. Sorkin wants it to be a mess, wants us to face cruel irony, cynicism and miscalculation by laughing, crying and hanging our heads in shame, resignation or fear.
One thing Atticus did right was, as he said after being overwhelmed by reality, “We can’t go on like this.” Sorkin is smart enough not to try to solve the problem that’s ruining this country almost time and time again. . Instead, he reminds us that we will indeed continue to do so. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, more than 60 years after the novel was published, and five years after the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville, Virginia, we continue to do so.
For tickets and details, visit Broadwayinboston.com.