Theater Review: “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Kennedy Center

(L to R) Justin Mark (Jem Finch), Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), Melanie Moore (Scott Finch) and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris). Photo by Juliette Cervantes.

Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel is now at the Kennedy Center, set in 1930s Alabama. It could have easily found a home in contemporary America, with a range of characters, dialogue and intense racial hatred that echoes some in today’s politics.

The cast is fantastic…a 21st century “robin” – a powerful new tool in America’s fight for racial justice.

Three children, Scooter (Melanie Moore), Jem (Justin Mark), and Dill (Steven Lee Johnson), tell the story of the small town, country attorney Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) agrees to play the role of Tom Robinson (Yager T. Welch), a black man falsely accused of raping poor white woman Mayella Ewell (Arianna Welch) Gail Starkey). Atticus stands by his view that there is some benefit to all, and he firmly believes that a jury — made up of citizens he has known since childhood — will acquit the defendants based on overwhelming evidence.

Atticus stood by his belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, even as a crowd gathered in prison to lynch Robinson and the accuser’s father, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins), threatened to harm Atticus’s family. Carl Ponia (Jacqueline Williams), the black housekeeper of the Finch family, and Atticus’ children try to show Atticus that his innocence is not a virtue, but a disservice to those who are racially abused. The betrayal of those who are harmed by the bigots, the bigots. It wasn’t until the life of his own child was threatened that Atticus gained a more nuanced understanding of those around him and the demands of establishing true justice.

The cast is great. The children looked like teenagers, but had childlike demeanor. They are witty, insightful, and likable. The racist rants of Bob Ewell (Collins) and his daughter (Stuckey) are revolting for their vicious ignorance, which is incompatible with Tom Robinson (Welch) and Calpurnia ( Williams)’s wit and poise are in stark contrast. Although the story underscores Atticus Finch’s misguided attempts at virtue, it retains his admirable qualities, including his commitment to the law; his belief in the defendant’s right to a competent defense; and his commitment to Insight into the underlying cultural norms he must overcome to ensure justice is served.

Mariam Buether devised a set that moves between the Finch family’s front porch and the courtroom, making a brief stop in front of the town’s jail, and strolling past the precious flowerbeds of Lady Henry Dubose (Mary Budham) (especially Bud Tom played the Scout in the 1960s film). Clothing reflects the era, reminiscent of a world where one’s gender and status strictly determine dress style.

Sorkin’s brilliant reimagining of this masterpiece of American literature. While largely faithful to the original, those familiar with the novel will notice his changes, but in a way that enhances the story’s enlightening power, in no way detracts from it. Sorkin gave us the 21st century “robin”—a powerful new tool in America’s fight for racial justice.

Duration: 2 hours and 55 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” will take place on July 10, 2022 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC, 20566. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here. During performances at the Kennedy Center, all patrons in all theaters are required to wear masks unless actively eating or drinking.

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