To Kill a Mockingbird review – Aaron Sorkin spellbinds Broadway

Sam S Shubert Theatre, New York

The Oscar-winning writer’s controversial adaptation of the Harper Lee novel hits the stage with a splash and a strong central performance from Jeff Daniels

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a talky courtroom drama that inspired its own courtroom drama, has finally arrived on Broadway. Can it fly? Mostly.

Earlier this year, Harper Lee’s estate had sued the production for characterizations thought to deviate from the 1960 novel. The suit was eventually settled and the production allowed to continue. Changes remain, though the Broadway production hasn’t made a script available, which makes direct comparisons difficult. It’s clear that Sorkin has tried, rightly or wrongly, to make the story more palatable for 2018 and the parallels between 1930s America and the America of today even more explicit.

Does To Kill a Mockingbird require renovation? No and yes. A literary classic, it’s a distinctly American story and it is a story that America likes to tell about itself – one that acknowledges inequality and the problems of pluralism, but also suggests an arc that bends toward justice, at however oblique an angle. In a small southern town, a black man, Tom Robinson, stands accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch (played here by Jeff Daniels) is the white man, “a lawyer who gets paid in vegetables”, charged with defending him. Atticus’s children, Jem and Scout, as well as their friend Dill, observe the trial and its inevitable, tragic aftermath.

These experiences teach the children – and Atticus, too – that while evil exists in the world, they must fight that evil with all the goodness they can muster. It’s not such a bad lesson as lessons go, but today its delivery is a problem – an imperiled black body becomes a vehicle for white people’s moral education.

It’s here that Sorkin has most directly intervened, expanding the roles of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Atticus’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), so that the white voices aren’t the only ones heard. These moves can’t really disguise a story about a white savior who sees more and knows more than the people around him. (White saviors – lawyers, newsmen, a president – are big with Sorkin.) The gestures toward the present day – mostly reminders that racism stems from feelings of inequality and economic insecurity – aren’t especially necessary or helpful.

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

If you can put these concerns aside, this Mockingbird is a superbly entertaining and handsomely acted event. Sorkin has structured the play around the courtroom drama, which gives the action force and drive. (In Miriam Beuther’s set, both the courthouse and Atticus’s house flit in and out of a barn.) And yes, he and Bartlett Sher, a director of real moral seriousness, have included some Sorkinesque walking and talking. That talk is abounding and energetic, especially when delivered by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen and Gideon Glick, the actors playing the children.

These actors are adults, one of the productions more neatly theatrical conceits. The effect is never jarring, though the distinction between the children experiencing these events and the adults they become looking back on them is often muddled. The muddle is worthwhile when it allows for Keenan-Bolger’s Scout, a brave and radiant creature of heart and fists, and Glick’s Dill, clever and weird and lost.

Of course, Mockingbird rests on Daniels’ shoulders and they are ample. Yes, he looks slightly ridiculous in his white suit (the costumes are by veteran Ann Roth) and his Atticus can sometimes border his Newsroom character, but he is convincing and often moving as a man freighted with ideals the rest of the world doesn’t recognize. Still the play insists, often vigorously, in the inherent soundness of the democratic process and the American experiment. In 2018, should Atticus’s faith be more shaken? Should ours?

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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