theater review

Theater Review: Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird Adaptation Walks the Walk

From To Kill a Mockingbird, at the Shubert. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

You won’t hear Atticus Finch say those words to his son Jem in the To Kill a Mockingbird now alighting on Broadway. The banners outside the theater proclaim, in all capital letters, “HARPER LEE’S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD”, but the smaller print tells the truth: “A new play by Aaron Sorkin.” The production is “not an homage or an exercise in nostalgia,” wrote Sorkin for this magazine, “I [didn’t] swaddle the book in bubble wrap and transfer it gently to the stage. Theaters aren’t museums.” Reverent readers-turned-audience members might clutch their pearls (as the Lee estate did), but it’s exciting to hear a writer speak clearly about intent — and about that intangible but incontrovertible sense of present consciousness that a piece of theater owes to its moment. Sorkin has written a new play, and it’s characteristically taut and nimble, fluid and funny, with plenty to meditate on and argue about. Its goal is to speak audibly about 2018 and — sometimes poignantly, sometimes more heavy-handedly — it succeeds. As a piece of writing, it’s both rollicking and ruminative, and my own personal jury is still out on its major thematic turn of the dial: a condemnation of modern respectability politics through the developing character of Atticus. But as a piece of theater, it’s magnificent. Bartlett Sher and his designers have created a shifting, breathing, gorgeously orchestrated world, and while the top-billed Jeff Daniels is indeed lighting up the stage as the story’s iconic lawyer, every member of the ensemble shines alongside him. As a company, under Sher’s careful and majestic direction, they are incandescent.

Whether or not the influence is conscious, this To Kill a Mockingbird owes something to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s great 1980s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. It revels in the dramatic possibilities of narration, and it has to stretch itself less to find those flexible storyteller-cum-character voices, since its source material already unfolds in the first person. And what a person. Celia Keenan-Bolger is so wonderful as Scout Finch that the air seems to buzz around her. Shoulders hiked up with youthful energy, thin and furrow-browed in a blonde pageboy cut and denim overalls, she’s light and solemn at once, luminous and grounded and sharp as a penknife. When she canters loose-limbed across the stage, or nestles in nooks and crannies to eavesdrop on her elders, it’s impossible to watch anything else. Keenan-Bolger is 40, and she seems born to the part of this smart, headstrong six-year-old in a way that gives you the rare, enchanting sense that you really are watching an actor’s soul shimmer in public. She and her fellow adult-kids — the equally marvelous Will Pullen as Scout’s brother Jem and Gideon Glick as their oddball friend Dill — are like a trio of virtuoso violinists: You can see the children, the beautiful instruments that are being brought to life, and you can see the incredible grace and skill of the performers, and above all you can hear the music.

“I’ll be narrating this story,” Keenan-Bolger’s Scout informs us, her chin upturned with the unruffled brio of the very young. “And I’m also part of the narrative.” She’s got some big questions, and she’s ready to dig for the truth. Or she thinks she is. Sorkin leaps to the end of Lee’s novel to begin his play, galloping back and forth from the climax and wrapping the story of hate and hope and the sickening, familiar miscarriage of justice inside a children’s detective romp. Bob Ewell fell on his own knife — or did he? Scout’s not so sure, and she’s crafting a memory play in order to piece together the events of the summer of 1935 in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. The summer Dill came to town. The summer of Boo Radley. The summer of the trial of Tom Robinson. The summer she and her brother really started to grow up.

So far, so Harper Lee. But Sorkin’s major twist is that here — in this play and, the play is arguing, in this age — Atticus has as much growing to do as his children. In fact, he has more. The kids have their heads on pretty straight in Sorkin’s world: They see ugliness, dishonesty, cowardice, or blind hate, and they call it out for what it is. Sometimes in their righteous indignation they lose their cool, as when Jem decimates the prize camelia bush of their bigoted neighbor Mrs. Henry Lafayette DuBose (Phyllis Somerville) with his sister’s twirling baton. Their father is more temperate. He believes in right action, and he also believes in courtesy — to Mrs. DuBose and even to the likes of Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), a sadistic, craven, virulently racist lowlife who proudly claims ties to the KKK, threatens to lynch people who cross him, and beats and molests his own daughter, the broken, brainwashed Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi). “I believe in being respectful,” Atticus says to Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the black woman who has worked for his family since before Scout was born, and whom Scout perceives as having a frank, sibling-like relationship with her father. “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it,” Calpurnia shoots back at her well-meaning white boss.

Is Atticus’s insistence on decency a reflection of the relative ease and comfort in which he lives? Is it a code that’s purchased at the expense of real justice, real progress? Can we just not afford it anymore? “They don’t deserve an explanation!” shouts Jem of the people in Maycomb, Bob Ewell included, who lead with their fear and their hatred, while his patient patrician father is constantly attempting to explain, if not excuse, people. Atticus’s famous exhortation to his children, that they can’t truly understand a person until they “climb into his skin and walk around in it” is still here, but it no longer resonates as flawlessly sage counsel. Instead, it seems to suggest this Atticus’s blind spots, the limits of the all-encompassing empathy he attempts to cultivate. The color of that skin is much more important than Atticus supposes: He can imagine the suffering that drove Bob Ewell, a white man, to becoming a monster, but can he actually imagine the suffering that the wrongfully accused Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a black man, lives with every day, and under the pressures of which he has remained kind, hardworking, and human? The first time this Atticus meets Tom to offer to defend him in court (against Bob Ewell’s baselessly despicable accusation that Tom has raped Mayella), he talks over him until Tom finally demands to be heard. Sorkin’s Atticus is still a man of integrity, but the new trajectory set before him is clear: He’ll have to check his privilege.

As a reframing of character that launches To Kill a Mockingbird squarely into the center of many a hot contemporary debate, it works. But if anything hinders the establishment of this Atticus’s particular and familiar myopia, it might be the fact that Daniels is almost too good. He’s so immensely solid, so appealing and articulate and affecting in the role — and the audience is so breathlessly overjoyed to watch him — that the sense that, when the story begins, this is a man with well-intentioned blinders on gets a little obscured. This Atticus doesn’t tell Jem that courage is knowing you’re licked before you begin, because he doesn’t seem to know he is licked (and because, in the novel, that definition specifically arises from Atticus’s respect for Mrs. DuBose, who manages to kick her morphine addiction before dying; here, the nasty Mrs. DuBose gets no exculpatory humanizing. The time for walking around in her skin, it appears, is up). Sorkin has written an Atticus whose stalwart naïveté is often a little hard to believe, especially in the person of Daniels, who seems so rooted, intelligent, and open-eyed. Can we really buy his insistence on the fundamental goodness of the people of Maycomb, his certainty that when they’re called upon in court to rise — not simply to stand, Scout notes, but to “raise [themselves] to the level of a just God” — they won’t let their fears or prejudices “extend to sending an innocent man to his death”? “Time’s are changing,” he assures Calpurnia, but we’re more than prepared for her flat reply: “You sure about that?” (Sher fills the court’s audience box with ensemble members, but he tellingly keeps the twelve chairs in the jury box empty: Atticus can’t see these men — these embittered white farmers who will vote their fears and their self-interest every time — until it’s too late.)

I confess to missing an Atticus who felt a little closer in spirit to Link Deas (Neal Huff), the good-hearted cotton farmer who masquerades as the town drunk, keeping the ugly and ignorant at arm’s length with his affected dishevelment and his bottle of Coca Cola disguised in a brown paper bag. Outwardly, Deas couldn’t be more different from the aristocratic lawyer, in his trademark linen suits and tortoise shell glasses — but both men are smart enough to see the perpetual disappointment of the world, its track record of cowardice and cruelty. One is more personally broken by it, but both are attempting to find their way through cynicism towards something else. Call it courage.

But a different argument is being made with this Atticus, and all’s fair in love and adaptation. Seen another way, it’s Daniels’s full, nuanced performance that keeps Sorkin’s pointedness from feeling pedantic. And it’s Sher, too. Sher’s masterful elevation of the text — the force and delicacy with which he simultaneously sweeps the play along and lights a fire underneath each of its actors — turns two hours and thirty five minutes into “Once upon a time … ” He’s the kind of theatrical storyteller whose tales you long to sit through again immediately, even as the curtain comes down. Along with plays and musicals, Sher has an impressive opera resume, and that kind of elegant, fluid but formidable maestro’s hand is evident here. Miriam Buether’s splendid set conjures, as its shell, something like an old abandoned factory or warehouse — the kind of place that kids love to play in and that grown-ups call dangerous, or the kind of place that’s left in dying towns full of discontented people where old industries are disappearing and old beliefs are digging in their heels.

Inside this evocative frame, pieces of the courtroom and the town glide in and out, walls and porches and roofs and the dense, leafy limbs of southern trees appear and vanish with a mesmerizing, almost dreamlike rhythm. Sher works like a conductor, expertly orchestrating the space so that the story can spring from it fleet-footed and without hindrance. With his designers, he goes big but he doesn’t go overboard. Ann Roth’s costumes are spot-on and free of frills, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is deliberate and painterly — single shafts across the space are enough to make the breath catch — and Adam Guettel has composed beautifully understated original music that soars when it finally needs to. Sher and his team have assembled a serious, exhilarating playground, as rich with imaginative potential as it is with detail. After all, the modular nature of the production’s landscape — the way Buether’s set comes together and breaks apart again, its walls porous, its edges unfinished — speaks to its real setting: Scout’s memory. A place of inquisitive reconstruction, of images collected and fit back together across time — because of course the Scout who tells us about the summer of 1935 is a palimpsest. The narrator and the author, the kid detective and the grown, still searching woman.

Like all children, Scout and Jem learn the world through both adventure and osmosis. One of the play’s most chilling moments comes when the battered, poisoned Mayella takes the stand and, pushed hard by Atticus to point at the real culprit in the room — her father — she explodes like a homemade bomb, scattering atrocious racist shrapnel everywhere. Her rant against Tom is taken word for word from a screed we’ve heard Bob Ewell make to Atticus, and her mad eyes glisten with the toxic satisfaction of having a creed to cling to, something that someone in this world has cared enough to repeat in her presence. Mayella has been taught — not carefully, perhaps, but taught all the same — and her schooling has been at the hands of a monster.

Meanwhile, Scout’s been learning to look for humanity even in the most irredeemable places. She defuses a bomb of her own when she and Jem follow Atticus one night to the jail where Tom is being held — and where, Atticus hears, Bob Ewell his headed with a lynch mob. Sitting outside the cell door armed only with a reading lamp (that’s Atticus all over: enlightenment will prevail), the lawyer tries to fend off the gang of hooded thugs with reason, but it’s Scout’s surprise emotional appeal that wins, if only for that night. She recognizes one of the men, despite his hood, as Mr. Cunningham (Wolohan), a poor farmer whom Atticus has been helping practically gratis to fight the entailment on his land. Keenan-Bolger is gentle and riveting as she addresses the bulky, shamefaced man — Wolohan also plays Boo Radley, and there’s something fascinating in Scout’s eventual clear-eyed seeing of both men, the coward and the hidden hero. As she faced him down, speaking from real kindness and concern, incapable of the kind of condescension that these men see in Atticus, I shed my first tears of the evening. They were far from the last.

Perhaps it is, in part, Keenan-Bolger’s performance — and those of Daniels and Pullen, Akinnagbe and Jackson — that leave me unable to rest entirely easy in the notion that decency has no more place in the world, that, like Atticus’s linen suit, it’s a white luxury, a prim roadblock on the way to true liberation. There’s bravery and dignity in every one of these actors, and there’s also generosity: Their characters, like Jem or Calpurnia, might believe that Atticus’s brand of civility goes too far and does too much collateral damage, but their very essences as performers speak to a kind of moral rightness that’s not disassociated from compassion and from kindness. In writing about the development of his Atticus, Sorkin connected the character’s mindset to Trump’s infamous characterization of the deadly events of August 2017 in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. (You know — “very fine people on both sides.”) I get Sorkin’s allusion: It was a hot-take-y way to make his point. But I believe it’s dangerous to connect a piece of bad-faith political drivel out of the mouth of someone with a track record of heinous corruption and criminal self-interest with the honest efforts of a person of integrity who’s trying to remember that the world is made up of human beings. Some of those human beings are Bob Ewells or Donald Trumps. Some are Mr. Cunninghams. Some are Tom Robinsons or Scouts. And plenty are somewhere in between. “There’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ’em,” says Maycomb’s sheriff, the dry Heck Tate (Danny McCarthy), to Atticus, when Bob Ewell finally meets his bloody end. “Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it took to shoot ‘em.” “Oh no,” Calpurnia replies, her eyebrow perpetually raised, “they’re worth the bullet.”

It’s a laugh line, and we feel good laughing — because Bob Ewell is about as irredeemable as they come. But I can’t help hearing the sheriff’s same words coming out of the racist abuser’s mouth. Whom would he be referring to? Tom? Atticus? What would we make then of the easy pronouncement that some people deserve to be put out of our misery?

“All rise,” Scout repeats throughout the play, and on the wings of Sher’s direction and his outstanding ensemble of actors, the production does rise. Ultimately, it rises above Sorkin’s fashionably contemporary polemic on privileged, blinkered white civility — which is both a real phenomenon and, at least from where I stand, not cause enough to abandon empathy in the pursuit of right action. Sher and his company have crafted something of breathtaking grace and poignancy, and have laid open Sorkin’s telling of the story. They fill out what could veer towards cleverness or dogmatism with breath and nuance and soul, enabling us to walk away exhilarated and uncertain, questioning both ourselves and a story we’ve long thought we knew.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Shubert Theatre.

Sorkin’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Walks the Walk