Richard Thomas shines in Opera’s “Mockingbird” Aaron Sorkin’s script…not so much

Award-winning actor Richard Thomas doesn’t just act—he embodies his character, avoiding even a hint of finesse.

That’s crucial in “Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'” (April 17 at the Citizens Bank Opera House on Broadway in Boston) as Emmy- and Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s problematic deconstruction of the theatrical adaptation of the classic novel requires Thomas as the otherworldly Atticus Finch to act as a magnet, putting all the pieces back together.

Lee’s novel, a high school must-read, focuses on Jean Louise (“Boy Scout”) Finch and the long, tedious summers of her childhood in Alabama, when the realities of racism and prejudice shook her place small town of Maycomb. When her father, Atticus, is chosen to defend a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman, assumptions, resentment and injustice prevail despite the obvious and Atticus’ conviction that the majority of Maycomb People are honest and decent. In a subplot, Scott, her brother Jem, and a summer visitor named Dill learn a lesson in tolerance when they make assumptions about their mysterious neighbor “Shh” Radley.

Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film made Atticus a truly noble defender of the innocent, including his children and the accused on trial. As painfully paternalistic as this approach feels today, it is made worse by the knowledge that the storyteller is his young daughter whom he adores. (As a tribute to the film, Mary Badham, who created the character of Scout, plays the grumpy old neighbor in this production). But Sorkin’s script (“A Few Good Men,” “Becoming Ricardo,” “The Social Network,” and TV’s “The White House”) was oddly labelled “a new show,” shifting the focus to more Much moved to Atticus and his moral struggles and personal weaknesses. The show is still told by kids—Scout, Jem, and Dill all address the audience, tossing back and forth with storytelling duties like hot potatoes—but Atticus is always front and center. However, this recalibration removes some of the sincerity of young children’s growing awareness of prejudice and its consequences.

Mary Badham, who played the Boy Scouts in the original film, is Mrs. Dubose in the Citizens Bank Opera House production. (Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Some of the praise for Parker’s film performance comes from his ability to express so much emotion unspoken. To his credit, Thomas appeared very at ease, especially in his patient and wise interactions with the children, who conveyed a lighthearted feeling. But Sorkin isn’t interested in subtleties. It is not enough for Atticus to remind us that there is kindness in each of us, he must repeat it at every opportunity. As “the most honest and decent man in Maycomb”, Atticus must be placed on a ridiculously high pedestal – he reminds his neighbors that he is the man Jem values ​​most and that he must serve him The sons set an example (well, what about Scooter??). But in Act 2, he has to be knocked down and learn from his mistakes. It’s fitting that he learns his lesson from Calponia (Jacqueline Williams), the housekeeper, but it’s just that Sorkin casts her into a two-dimensional stereotype, which leads Atticus to apologize to her It feels harsh rather than sincere.

Still, Thomas grabs our attention, piecing together these random pieces of the story through sheer willpower, looking for as much opportunity for humanity and nuance as possible. Melanie Moore plays Tomboy Scout, Justin Mark plays Jem, and Steven Lee Johnson plays their friend Dill. The scenes where the characters honestly talk to each other and their father are the highlights of the show. But Sorkin never let these relationships develop, breaking the spell of the drama world by letting the children speak directly to the audience instead.

Sorkin does offer Thomas the opportunity to have a dramatic and powerful outburst of rage in court, but honestly it feels like it’s been distilled from Sorkin’s “several good guys.” To his credit, Thomas built an effective crescendo that revealed Atticus’ frustration. But his good looks smashed so thoroughly does feel a little out of place, especially when the monologue focuses on what broke defendant Tom Robinson (Yager T. Welch).

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch, Melanie Moore in “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” “Scout.”) (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes)

Sorkin said he reframed the story because he felt the trial was the dramatic heart of the story. But by making such a choice, he ignores the adult experiences that make some harsh “lessons” palatable. Furthermore, by making the courtroom scene and Atticus’ character in it the focal point, the audience is asked to endure endless scene changes through which the young narrator has to keep changing until the pieces fly into place. (Jem fills in the time with an anecdote about the Auburn-Georgia Tech football game to illustrate the unexpected turn against Tom Robinson).

Miriam Buether’s courtroom and Finch home set designs teeter on the edge of a kind of imaginative, though witness seats and porch swings are remarkably realistic. This supports Bartlett Sher’s choreographed blocking – if two children cross the stage from the left, one must move the stage to the right; when Atticus walks forward, they must step back. Adam Guettel’s score provides a delightful backdrop that helps keep the show from dragging its feet, but the insistence on pulling out of action to advance the story undercuts the dramatic tension that’s been building.

Rather than re-imagining “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 21st century, the new show offers just select highlights and is stoked by the likes of “We Can’t Go On This Way” and “Let’s Speed ​​Up Change” Surrounded by pedantic statements. The best theater doesn’t have to tell us, it just shows us and lets us decide.

Yeager T. Welch, Stephen Elrod, Jacqueline Williams and Richard Thomas in “Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'”( Courtesy Juliette Cervantes)

“Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'” runs through April 17 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.

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