Known for his script of words per minute setting land speed records, your mileage may vary when it comes to tolerating Sorkin’s style. Inevitably, in this “Mockingbird,” people will say something clever because Sorkin wants them to say it, whether or not they’re a good fit for the role.
But he has a lot of strengths of his own, and one is related: The man knows it from courtroom drama.
Don’t forget his breakout success was the 1989 Broadway production of “A Few Good Men” — and, of course, later Tom Cruise and a fire-breathing Jack (“You Can’t deal with the truth! ”) Nicholson. The conflict of ideas and personalities is also a central driving force in Sorkin’s The White House.
As such, he excels at crafting fun bottled scorpion duels, which make “The Robin” a highly focused, fast-moving and gripping event.
In the show’s first few minutes, Sorkin takes us to a courtroom in a small Alabama town where a black man named Tom Robinson (a stoic Yeager T. Welch) was arrested in 1934. Falsely accused of rape. This is where Atticus will make an electrifying defense for Tom, and where American racism itself will be brought to trial.
Sorkin in “The Robin” shows this toxic racism, both personal and systemic, as raw, ugly, and relentless. (Scenario designer Miriam Buether created a spacious and versatile set that exudes something ominous.) The villainous Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) clearly means embodying the dangers of white supremacy not only then but now.
The 1962 film version of “The Robin” starred Gregory Peck, and in 2018 Jeff Daniels brought a touch of Pike-like dullness to the role when he played Atticus on Broadway. Thomas’s lack of plaster saints at Atticus and a little less confidence in his integrity are all good things. It’s an artfully calibrated portrayal, albeit on a different tone, of a man whose world is about to end, as Thomas’s 2018 performance in Stephen Callam’s “Human” at the Schubert Theater.
What helps Atticus become a more complex figure at this stage is the counterforce represented by Finch’s black butler, Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams). Sorkin subtly expands the role of Calpurnia, who provides Atticus with a real-world counter-attack based on the Black experience. After all, Atticus’ brand of complacent idealism is a form of white privilege.
His mantra was “goodness in every man”; Calpurnia points to plenty of evidence to the contrary. When Atticus said, “I believe in respecting others,” she countered, emphasizing the greater risk of that attitude: “It doesn’t matter who you’re disrespecting who you’re doing.”
As with any Sorkin playbook, this mean style is marred by ostentatious outbursts from time to time. Unwanted dots are italicized, and sometimes characters from the Great Depression-era Deep South sound like the genteel Mr. Sorkin himself, creating not only inconsistencies in tone but also inconsistencies in character descriptions. In one scene, for example, Bob Ewell drops the word “condescending” while accusing Atticus of elitism with incredible sophistication; then, later, Ewell I don’t seem to know what “rejection” means.
His 19-year-old daughter Mayella makes unjust rape charges against Tom Robinson, played by Arianna Gayle Stucki. The actress paints a harrowing portrait of despair; her Mayella is part of, but trapped by, a harmful force.
As a young Scout Finch, Melanie Moore deftly transitions back and forth from narrator to action participant. (Mary Badham played Scott very well in the film, playing a minor role as an abusive neighbor on the show.) Also heavily supported was Justin Mark as Scott’s character. Brothers Jem and Steven Lee Johnson serve as their friends Dill, although Sorkin devotes too much stage time to the latter, especially after an eradication of previous arguments between Atticus and Caponia in a tense scene.
After all, these two are what we need to hear, and Tom Robinson. And one more: Six years later, we still need to hear Harper Lee. Variation and all, this “To Kill a Mockingbird” made us do it.
to kill a robin
Played by Aaron Sorkin. Based on a novel by Harper Lee. Directed by Bartlett Shell. Presented by Broadway in Boston. at the Citizens Bank Opera House. until April 17th. Tickets start at $44.50. www.BroadwayInBoston.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org him on twitter @GlobeAucoin.