The marquee at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre blasts in big block letters “Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.” But all it takes is some slingshot dialogue to reveal that the new blockbuster Broadway adaptation belongs to Aaron Sorkin.
The program spells out that this top-flight production, which had its official opening Thursday under the rustically elegant direction of Bartlett Sher, is indeed a “new play by Aaron Sorkin.” It’s a masculine take on one of the greatest novels of girlhood ever written.
The Boo Radley games played by Scout, her older brother Jem and their regular summer buddy Dill, all of whom are dying to get a peek at their reclusive bogeyman neighbor, are held off for more important concerns. Sorkin leaps into what he believes is the heart of the story: the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a poor white woman.
Legal and ethical questions predominate in Sorkin’s retelling. Scout (a vivid Celia Keenan-Bolger) retains her narrator role to a degree, though the story’s emphasis shifts to her widower father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer who has agreed to defend Tom in a tinderbox case he knows will have dangerous repercussions for all involved.
The role that Gregory Peck turned into a moral beacon in the classic 1962 film is played by Jeff Daniels with a shambling, heavyhearted ambivalence. It’s a stirring, thoroughly original portrayal of a character too shadowed with doubt to be heroic yet too determined to do the right thing not to maintain our admiration, even if at times he seems hopelessly naïve.
But what was once a bildungsroman about a rowdy, independent-minded tomboy whose moral education involves coming to terms with the hypocrisies and willful blindness of the adults around her in Depression-era Alabama is now the story of an idealistic attorney forced to confront the limitations of the law as an instrument of justice in a racist society.
Let the accusations of appropriation fly. Sorkin, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “The Social Network” and multiple Emmys for “The West Wing,” can take the heat. His reworking moves as confidently as it speaks even if it doesn’t completely add up dramatically. To adapt a high school classic to the stage one must take ownership; submissiveness is a recipe for staleness. Quarrel all you want with the liberties that are taken, Sorkin, Sher and an impeccable cast have created something provocatively fresh.
Controversy, in any event, is unavoidable with this landmark American novel. “To Kill a Mockingbird” tells a fundamental story about the way race and justice are inextricably bound in America. Readers have no choice but to approach the material through the prisms of their own histories. Lee herself was divided about her own book, as revealed by the controversial 2015 publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” an abandoned earlier work that shows the characters of “Mockingbird” in a harsher light.
Rereading Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner in 2018 is a vastly different experience from when I first encountered the book in the early 1980s. The times have changed and so have I. But one thing remains constant: our shortsightedness. No one ever commands a total view.
Perhaps that insight is behind the decision to wrestle away some of Scout’s storytelling authority. Even minor assertions are contested by Jem (Will Pullen) and Dill (Gideon Glick), as Scout retrospectively ponders the momentous events that almost cost Jem and her their lives.
One matter she keeps coming back to is how Bob Ewell (an appropriately slithering Frederick Weller) could have fallen on his knife during his attack on Jem and her. She understands he was seeking revenge for the courtroom humiliation Atticus inflicted on him and his daughter Mayella (a credibly intense Erin Wilhelmi), the young woman who falsely accuses Tom of raping her. But there’s something about his death that just doesn’t make sense.
As the play jumps back in time, it becomes clear that it’s not the incident itself but the coverup that Scout finds so haunting. She’s desperate to understand Atticus’ journey from idealist to realist, as though the answer to all the societal questions bedeviling her lie in figuring out this one mystery.
Atticus’ belief in the inherent goodness in people is challenged by characters who are given new agency by Sorkin. Calpurnia (played by the formidable LaTanya Richardson Jackson) stays mostly within the bounds of a black housekeeper of the period, but she lets Atticus know that his faith in the town is misplaced.
Evil exists in polite, sleepy Maycomb. (The Ku Klux Klan is made up of the same folks who shop at the hardware store on Saturday and fill the pews on Sunday.) Atticus’ insistence that you can’t judge a person till you crawl inside his skin and walk around in it is simplistic. Empathy is a weak defense against murderous, irrational hatred.
An anachronistic note enters Sorkin’s script when Atticus and Calpurnia start throwing around the term “passive-aggressive” to describe her disapproving attitude. It’s a sign that Sorkin would like to do more with her character but feels hemmed in by the book. The actors, however, communicate truths that transcend time: Jackson’s Calpurnia knows her resentments are legitimate but being right isn’t the same thing as being smart. Daniels’ Atticus needs no one to tell him he’s no white shining knight, but he wants to set an example for his children without giving up on his community.
The portrayal of Tom Robinson is more straightforward. Poised and contained, Gbenga Akinnagbe imbues the character with a dignified gravity that is more Sidney Poitier than Brock Peters (the actor who brought such astonishing physical anguish to his film portrayal of Tom).
Sher keeps a tight hold on the emotion of the story, preferring the pressure to build slowly and steadily, like the organ music Adam Guettel has composed for the production. One notable eruption, when Mayella appeals to the jury to convict Tom for the safety of white women everywhere, the histrionics are so troubling that one can only savor the tart irony of Dakin Matthews’ Judge Taylor, whose reactions provide a running commentary on Southern duplicity.
The jury box is empty, leaving audience members to imagine the identities of these ordinary citizens, who hold in their hands the fate of an innocent man. The weight of their judgment is made all the more staggering by their invisibility. (Theater may lack the velocity of film, but it can do wonders with shorthand.)
It seems odd that Jem’s role should be diminished while Dill’s is enlarged, but this might simply be because Glick is such an eccentrically mesmerizing performer while Pullen is cut down to a blond haircut. That the roles of the children are played by adult actors isn’t at all an issue. It’s the writing that occasionally lets the youth down.
Choices have to be made, and Sorkin’s loyalty lies with the grownups. Keenan-Bolger has everything you could want in a Scout — the honeyed drawl, the scrappy temperament, the ice-pick gaze. She could play this role for another 20 years and no one would notice her age. But I wish Keenan-Bolger had access to a little more Lee without the Sorkin filter.
Scout is the medium through which we receive the novel. The story goes beyond her character, but it’s through her precocious deciphering of contradictory signals that we gain a picture of the Maycomb world she’s having so much trouble understanding.
After the trial, when Sorkin must finally pick up the Boo Radley thread to bring the narrative to its expected close, the writing becomes slightly perfunctory. Boo Radley is meant to be ghostly, but when Danny Wolohan shows up in the role, the lack of dramatic preparation for the character makes it seem as if the actor is haunting the wrong play.
Daniels is the centerpiece of this production, and it’s Atticus’ conscience that drives the drama. But even when the focus moves away from him, my attention remained gripped by the high level of the stagecraft.
The clean fluidity of Sher’s staging, which makes the most of Miriam Buether’s impressionistic scenic design, Ann Roth’s milieu-nailing costumes and the elegiac glows of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, is an unmitigated pleasure. And as the organist (who’s positioned across the stage from a guitarist) turns the play into an American mass, I found myself tuning in somberly to Atticus’ dilemma — the dilemma of a man who is better than his society but still a product of it.
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” will gratefully always be with us. This is Sorkin’s version and, for all the distortions and limitations, it finds ways through Atticus’ character to speak directly to our troubled times about the inseparability of race and justice in America. I look forward to future productions from female and African American perspectives that can match this level of theatrical excellence, but they too will be incomplete.
No one owns “To Kill a Mockingbird,” not even Lee, who died in 2016, or her estate, which fought to protect the book from Sorkin’s bolder encroachments before agreeing to a settlement. The book is ours to wrestle over as we struggle to realize the democratic ideals our imperfect natures and unresolved history have so far kept beyond reach.