Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Harper Lee rightfully won the Pulitzer Prize for her much beloved 1960 classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, with plot and characters loosely based on memories of her family, neighbors, and sadly, some terrible haunting events which occurred while she was growing up in the 1930s in rural Alabama.
Although dealing with serious societal issues from poverty, rape, and incest to the book’s most important theme, racial inequality in America some 70 years after the Civil War was supposed to bring an era of equal rights to all regardless of race, Mockingbird is still required reading in most high schools and middle schools throughout America.
To this day, the book is the subject of campaigns to remove it from the educational system, mainly for its use of the most offensive of racial epitaphs—possibly even more offensive today than in the less-PC and insensitive era when I was growing up—but still it endures as a great lesson for generations to come as it provides an important treatise on tolerance and the destructive nature of prejudice.
Through wincingly untenable situations and the study of the ignorant people, particularly in the Deep South, who continue to promote such sickening attitudes, Mockingbird remains a testament to the principles of compassion and standing for the courage of one’s convictions. In fact, the character of Atticus Finch is today considered the epitome of moral integrity and remains a model for lawyers and other contemporary practitioners of law and order. Or should be.
There was only one time I have seen Mockingbird adapted for the stage, presented almost 30 years ago with Bruce Davison at Atticus Finch, as well as the lategreat Carrie Snodgrass and my friends who brought me as far as La Mirada Civic to see it presented: the ever-missed Zelda Rubinstein, Lisa Pelikan as Mayella Ewell, and especially Jer Adrienne Lelliott as an indelibly touching Dill.
It was a magical ensemble of actors, granted, but the adaptation, then a hoping for a transfer to Broadway, was not anything as special as what Aaron Sorkin has created for the stage with this current and long-overdue stage version, which opened to much acclaim on Broadway in 2018 with Jeff Daniels as Atticus and featuring Celia Keenan-Bolger in her Tony-winning performance as his precocious daughter Scout. Before being shut down with the rest of the world during the pandemic, the production broke all records for a non-musical production presented at a theatre owned by the Schubert Organization.
The same phenomenon is evident in writing about the play’s current west coast debut; it took me quite awhile to adjust to characters not breaking into song on the musically bountiful stage surrounded by the art deco splendor of the Pantages Theatre. Honestly, I can’t think of ever seeing a straight play presented there and, thank geebus, the Nederlanders have finally conquered the once-thorny acoustical issues that came with presenting live theatre in a space originally designed and intended only to run motion pictures.
Sorkin, who early on won high honors for his hit play A Few Good Men and subsequently his screenplay for the award-winning film version, of course went on to win four-time Emmy Awards as creator and writer of TV’s The West Wing, as well as an Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network.
Still, his adaptation of Mockingbird did not receive raves across the board, criticized by some for switching the focus of the story from Scout to Atticus. It always surprises me when folks who by profession should be the first to keep an open mind about new and fresh takes on classic stories balk at such innovation; personally, I found the change of direction here both fascinating and exceedingly worthy of maintaining the traditions of fine storytelling.
The role of Atticus has always provided an opportunity for a truly gifted actor to brightly shine, from Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning turn in the original 1962 film version to Sorkin’s rendering of Lee’s heroic quiet giant for which Daniels was nominated for a Tony and subsequently replacements Ed Harris and Greg Kinnear were both universally applauded.
Richard Thomas has come a long, long way from his career-defining days as John-Boy Walton. He is riveting as Atticus, a character so well written it would be easy to fulfill by simply following the lead of Peck and Daniels and every other actor who has brought the gentle smalltown lawyer to fruition.
Thomas quickly makes the role his own, his sweet humanity so subtle one almost has to strain to hear him deliver the single father’s pearls of downhome wisdom as he tries to help his children navigate growing strong in difficult world. But when Atticus explodes in frustrated indignation, there isn't a false moment, especially when he breaks the fourth wall during his closing arguments to the court deciding the fate of Tom Robinson (a highly affecting Yaegel T. Welch), a black man falsely accused of raping a teenage white farm girl. When Thomas rails directly to the audience to wake up and work towards changing the world as it must change to keep our fuckedup species revolving around the sun, it’s impossible not to sit up straight and listen.
The trio of young actors cast as the children pivotal to the plot are all exceptionally talented, but unfortunately, they aren’t children—and although I hoped the concept would grow on me, it never quite gelled.
As Scout, the bright and nosy 10-year-old based on Lee herself who becomes the primary narrator of the story, I can’t wait to see Melanie Moore one day in a more age-appropriate role. Here, how hard she has to try to present us with the boisterous physicality of the character is a terrible distraction, something compounded by a curiously odd and inconsistent southern drawl.
As her brother Gem, again Justin Mark is surely a fine actor, but for any young adult to attempt delivering the serious nature of such the quirky 14-year-old old soul falls flat, especially when Atticus notices his son is “no longer a boy.” Since Mark is considerably taller than Thomas, maybe the exchange of lines should have been delivered sitting down.
Of the three, Steven Lee Johnson is the most successful as Dill, the desperately lonely and needy visiting summertime friend who loudly spouts his views and declarations concerning the human condition as though he has memorized a dictionary or maybe passages from the Farmer’s Almanac.
The supporting cast assembled for this national tour is uniformly worthy with one glaring exception: besides an accent sounding a little like Gabby Hayes after downing a fifth of Southern Comfort and smoking two packs of Camels, if the actor appearing as Mayella’s evil racist father played it any more villainously melodramatic, he’d be wearing a cape and top hat and twirling his mustache.
Jacqueline Williams is a standout as the Finch family’s loyal, loving, plain-speaking longtime maid Calpurnia, while both Richard Poe and David Christopher Wells provide a wonderful authenticity as the small town’s judge and sheriff, respectively. Jeff Still is heartbreaking in a stunning eleventh-hour turn as the grieving Link Deas, the town drunk who only actually drinks Coca-Cola from his ever-present paper sack so the townsfolk will leave him alone.
Luke Smith does a fine job of making defense lawyer Horace Gilmer sufficiently odious without feeling the need to conk us over the head, while recent Juilliard grad Arianna Gayle Stucki makes an auspicious professional debut as poor Mayella, the Dorothea Lange-like victim robbed of a childhood, so clearly abused and brainwashed one wishes it might have been her who shanked her father rather than… well… I won’t say for the sake of the six people in the world who may have never read the novel.
In a clever and welcome moment of stunt casting, the small but pivotal role of the Finch’s cranky elderly neighbor Mrs. Henry DuBose is played by Mary Badham, the former 10-year-old with absolutely no acting experience who played Scout in the 1962 film and went on to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.
All this is held together by that brilliant veteran director Bartlett Sher, who leads with a firm hand and stages the piece seamlessly on Miriam Buether’s constantly moving impressionistic set that the actors themselves roll into place with each scene without it becoming annoying—in fact, I bought such a brave theatrical device far better than I did 20-year-olds playing 10-year-olds.
As uplifting as it is to return once again to Harper Lee’s classic novel, there’s no doubt the enveloping shroud hanging over Mockingbird remains the fact that, in the six decades since it was first published, not much has significantly changed, with special thanks to our last nightmare of a President for opening everyone’s eyes to the ugly rampant racism lurking under rocks in places most of us have only flown over.
There’s a thrown away but snarky reference made by Atticus that dishes the concept of the skewed sense of entitlement and the glaring hypocrisy of Christian charity and turn-the-other-cheekiness, a moment that elicited a smattering of appreciative applause from a few of us brave souls in the Pantages opening night audience who agreed wholeheartedly.
Would that more people could see the importance of what To Kill a Mockingbird had to tell us all those years ago about our blistering faults as members of the human race and how much we need to address those issues if we want to keep from driving ourselves into extinction.
NOW CLOSED: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or broadwayinhollywood.com
DEC. 27 THROUGH JAN. 8: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org