To Kill A Mockingbird: What Has Changed in Society Over the Past 90 Years
Aaron Sorkin, best known for many of his television series, like The West Wing and The Newsroom, has also developed quite an award-winning resume on the stage and screen: Charlie Wilson’s War, A Few Good Men, and The Social Network on the screen and on Broadway, A Few Good Men, The Farnsworth Invention and now To Kill A Mockingbird. Sorkin has put his stamp on each of his productions, and Mockingbird is no exception. He has taken Harper Lee’s classic drama about racial injustice in 1934 Alabama told through the eyes of 9-year-old Scout and made it relevant to today’s audiences.
He has taken the book and moved the story around, changing somewhat the vantage point of the play by including Scout’s older brother Jem and their newfound best friend Dill as the three narrators of this tragedy. They speak directly to the audience from the play’s onset, and in some ways act as a Greek chorus, leading the audience through what is obviously a foregone conclusion of where the play will take us, in fact telling us within minutes of the opening that the story is about the trial of Tom Robinson, a Negro being tried for the rape of a white girl, will be dead within twenty-eight days of the play’s beginning. This, despite the overwhelming evidence of the impossibility of his having committed the crime being painfully laid out by his attorney, Scout’s father, Atticus Finch.
Lee’s Mockingbird was apparently required reading on every school list at least in the ’60s and ’70s and to the best of my knowledge, continuously read today. The play has the same ability to grasp the audience’s attention as the book did to the readers these past 90 years. What plays out as pathetic is that the story is as relevant in today’s world as it was when Harper Lee put pen to paper so many years ago. Tom Robinson has become George Floyd, or Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor. What does it say for a society that claims to have moved on from living in a segregated world to a color blind one? Injustice remains, bigotry remains and many in today’s world simply choose to turn a blind eye. Perhaps those are the people who should be viewing this show.
Sorkin has put together a cast that is nothing less than sublime. Melanie Moore, Justin Mark, and Steven Lee Johnson all adults, put on the roles of Scout, Jem and Dill respectively, playing children about the ages of 9 & 12 seamlessly. Your eye adjusts almost from the onset and their portrayals are so believable, that you never doubt who they are or their intent. Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson is given more life on this stage than in either the book or movie and handles his role with class and finesse. Arianna Gayle Stucki makes her professional stage debut as Mayella, the accuser. She does as much with her cowering and inability to make contact with either the characters around her or the audience as she does with her grand emotional courtroom outbursts.
Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia, the Finches housekeeper, is stunning in her underplayed, quick-witted retorts to Atticus is the Black person’s voice in a society that is not ready to hear that voice being given a sound. Mary Badham takes the role of the vicious neighbor, Mrs. Duboise, with such ferocity and venom that she appears to be Miss Gulch who has escaped the Wizard of Oz, wound up leaving Kansas, and landed in Alabama. Badham, as an interesting side note, is the original 10-year-old Scout in the movie version with Gregory Peck. At the time she became the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar. Clearly, she has lost none of her acting ability over the ensuing 60 years.
The night belongs to Atticus, both his stage persona and the actor who inhabits him, Richard Thomas. From the moment Thomas appears on the stage there is something warm familiar and comforting about him. He is calm, pithy, witty, and kind. He tries to turn every moment into a teaching moment for his children. It is only in the few scenes that Thomas really explodes on the stage, in the courtroom, and defending his own children that we realize he is no longer John Boy. He pleads for truth and justice, and we watch him break when he realizes what we as an audience have known all along, there really is no justice for many in this world.
Sorkin has infused this production with much more humor than either the book or movie versions. That helps to allow the audience the time to breathe a bit and relax but it also makes the heartbreak and hatred that much more vitriolic when it hits.
The set transitions are beautifully choreographed as if moving us through a dream and becoming a part of the story.
Sadly, To Kill A Mockingbird is a tale that is as relevant today as when it is set, almost 90 years ago. Perhaps it will resonate with those who see it in a different light and time. Sadly, I fear those for whom this play might do the most good from an educational standpoint will most likely never see it. For the rest of us, it is a moving, thought-provoking, and stirring evening in the theater that should not be missed.
To Kill A mockingbird runs through Sunday, June 19. For more information: www.proctors.org, or call 518-346-6204.