“To Kill a Mockingbird” has been an impressive and enduring cultural touchstone for the past seven decades. The first, in 1960, as a Harper Lee masterpiece, has sold 40 million copies. Then, in 1962, it was a hit movie that featured Horton Foote and Gregory Peck in Oscar-winning roles that inspired generations of future lawyers. Then as a few games. The first, from 1990, is a favorite of schools and regional theaters. The second, from 2018, is a global phenomenon, adapted by Aaron Sorkin and is the highest-grossing play in Broadway history. To Kill a Mockingbird is even a mini festival that is held regularly in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Its power to impress readers and audiences outlasts changes in political and cultural currents. A flurry of criticism – including a blistering attack from Toni Morrison – about a white lawyer defending a young black man wrongly accused of rape in the ‘white savior’ myth and black people As a rapist – even if the accused in the story is innocent. And the cult of the white lawyer hero, “To Kill a Mockingbird” made the racist black citizens almost invisible.
Sorkin’s version, now in Chicago’s large Netherlandish theater, is an elaborate production that will have a relatively brief showing before heading to other markets in the United States. It’s influenced by some actual pitfalls of the bus and truck show. The set magically moved from the country house to the courthouse, but seemed too small for the Dutchman’s huge stage. Meanwhile, the cast appears to be overcrowded on a set that is too small. Many actors are just silent citizens or spectators in court. (In the absence of COVID-induced absences, all of these non-staff members are necessary, as a ready supply of backup students, which seems reasonable.) Although fully mic, many actors, perhaps in response to the cavernous halls, Shout out all their lines anyway. Even so, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so durable that none of them matter. Plus, the star thread of this work attracts a person.
Especially powerful is Melanie Moore, a rapidly convincing adult as a twelve-year-old Boy Scout. Moore’s Boy Scouts are the unifying narrator and characters in the play. As Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, a staunch defense attorney, Richard Thomas (John-Boy from “The Waltons”) was a staunch pillar of integrity. The warmth he conveys is dutiful care, gracious motto and an unwavering commitment to courtesy. The warm molasses undertones or the quiet physical grace of Gregory Peck’s empathetic film depictions are hard to match, so Thomas went in another direction. When he throws himself into a ruthless defense in court, it pays off – or is it just courtroom drama? – People who are wrongly accused.
Playwright Sorkin has kept many of the nasty elements of earlier plays and added a few. Like Robin, racism is front and center. But, grab your Panama hat. There is also the rape of a father by his daughter, the rejection of an intellectually disabled man, the neglectful murder of a biracial child, police killings, Ku Klux Klan violence, anti-Semitism and parental abuse of their gay son (based on Lee’s with Truman Capo special childhood friendships). Atticus Finch is at the center of it all. Only at the push of a local judge will Finch defend a rape charge by black Tom Robinson. The judge was disgusted by the fact that black defendants never had a chance to hear their cases before a jury, but were forced to accept the inevitable imprisonment or execution. It’s easy to overlook the fact that Finch is reluctant, or that another person in town most resents the justice mafia where sheriffs, prosecutors, and other judges collude against true justice and profit from its miscarriage. We shouldn’t. Finch is angry when justice is thwarted, but he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the evil in the world, insisting to his children that racial haters and killers deserve sympathy and understanding. Why? Because they lost their jobs or couldn’t survive the civil war. People are starting to understand Morrison’s criticism that the story was meant for white audiences and that it was easy for them. However, Finch has a foil, his son Jem, played by Justin Mark, another adult who can play the role of a child. The boy urged his father to get even crazier, though without success.
The bad guys in the show are really bad. There’s racist, incestuous Ku Klux Klan Bob Ewell, Joey Collins’ Bloody Curse, revelling in the role of a swaggering, drunk, bearded torturer , he’s so rotten, the rest of the Ku Klux Klan are human by comparison. Ewell’s daughter, the equally vicious Mayella, played vile and perpetually disheveled by Arianna Gayle Stucki, whose speech may be appropriate for white extremes instigated by “alternative theory” molecular. And, surprisingly, Mary Badham played the role of old lady Henry Dubose, a character so vile and racist that she doesn’t seem to be born with any administrative functions. Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film when she was 12, has spent her life since bringing “To Kill a Mockingbird” to audiences and tackling racism.
Sorkin’s recent revisions to the show bear clear parallels with recent events. The language of some characters mirrors the language of the alt-right today. This is a work with source code provided without ambiguity. It was an odd choice for Sorkin, who is known for the complexity of his characters. It’s an odd choice, as today’s racial and ethnic-related conflicts put the original work on a more ambiguous basis. If the ambiguity is allowed to unfold, the show might make the conflict of our time clearer. Granted, it’s a story about the great injustice suffered by black Americans, but it’s almost entirely a story about white life. To be fair, this is a story that Lee himself has barely made up, and the writers have a right to know what they know. Sorkin tried to fix the troublesome parts and even cleaned up the script to fit our time. It really doesn’t work. But if it’s going to be the story of our time, it won’t be complete without the ambiguity that has permeated over the years. Something ripped from the headlines caters to the moment, not wrestles with it.
It would not be complete without a more comprehensive description and sympathy for black victims.
There is no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird still moves audiences. This is powerful stuff. On opening night, the audience cried throughout the second act. The show received a long standing ovation. For all the flaws in the source material, it still evokes some of our better angels.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Broadway Chicago, James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 West Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com. Until May 29th.