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Broadway’s To Kill A Mockingbird is ‘Stunning, Magnificent, and Rare’

“I imagined we were being summoned to do more than just stand. I imagined that when the bailiff called ‘all rise’ that something large was required of us. Something stunning, magnificent, and rare.” – Scout Finch.

Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

“Stunning, magnificent, and rare” is the best way to describe Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. This magnificent new production of a classic tale has been running at The Shubert Theatre since December 2018, providing powerful insight to Harper Lee’s classic novel from 1960. Armed with Sorkin’s fearless new book and a formidable cast, director Bartlett Sher is able to bring Mockingbird into the current political climate; proving that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is more relevant than ever.

This production of To Kill A Mockingbird provides a new perspective to the classic story. For those unfamiliar with Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird tackles the subject of racism in the American South during The Great Depression. Told by six year old Scout Finch, the book begins by recounting lazy summers spent playing pretend and trying to catch a glimpse of local legend, Boo Radley. Everything changes when her father, Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson; an African American man accused of raping a white woman.

Only Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) could provide such a rich, witty, and honest retelling of this well-known story. Sorkin’s adaptation is fearless in how it tackles the subjects of racism, domestic abuse, and prejudice. While these topics were acknowledged in the novel, due to their narrator they were never fully explored. In this new look at the classic story, Sorkin opens up the narrative to discuss these topics and presents an up-to-date Mockingbird.

Naturally, Harper Lee’s novel had to be condensed for the stage, and so, Sorkin focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. The story begins with Scout onstage, trying to recall the night when Boo Radley finally came out; to find out if Bob Ewell actually fell on his knife. She’s joined by her brother Jem and their friend Dill, and together they work through the events leading up to that night; particularly the trial of Tom Robinson. From there, the events of the play stay mainly within the courtroom, while flashing back to other pivotal moments within the story.

By opening up the narrative, Aaron Sorkin allows us to view Maycomb County without the rose coloured lens of childhood which coats the original work. This provides the opportunity to showcase different sides of the story. Not only does the audience get to hear from Jem, Dill, and Scout; but from Calpurnia and Tom Robinson as well.

In a way, Sorkin’s Mockingbird is a re-examination of Atticus’ character, to the point that it feels as though he is the one on trial. While Atticus is still regarded as the “most honest and decent man” in town and his children’s hero; some of his philosophies are called into question.

By showcasing these new perspectives, as well as telling the story in flashback, Aaron Sorkin provides valuable insight to this classic story. This incredible production thrives as it’s brought to life under the careful direction of Bartlett Sher.

Leading this phenomenal cast is Celia Keenan-Bolger in the role of Scout Finch. Keenan-Bolger gives a spell-binding performance, which earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play this past June. The decision to cast adult actors as the children in the story is genius and provides an opportunity to for Keenan-Bolger and her castmates (Will Pullen and Gideon Glick) to show off their impeccable physicality. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Celia Keenan-Bolger presents the Scout we fell in love with; headstrong, fearless, and curious as she navigates this coming-of-age story. The most beautiful moment in her performance occurs at the end of the first act, when Scout, Jem, and Dill unknowingly rescue Atticus from a lynch mob. In this moment, Keenan-Bolger’s innocence shines as she transforms completely into a six-year old girl, unaware of the ugliness in the world, even as it exists in front of her. The moments of innocence contrast wonderfully with her feisty portrayal, making it all the more believable when she crawls into Atticus’ lap to seek comfort and counsel.

Jeff Daniels, simply put, is Atticus Finch. He may not be the Atticus you imagined, nor is he Gregory Peck’s version of this beloved character; and that makes him absolutely incredible as he finds his own take on Atticus within the new script. Daniels is grounded and steady, easily stepping into the character which serves as Maycomb County’s moral compass. His layered performance not only demonstrates “the most honourable man in Maycomb County”, but uncertainty and frustration as well. Daniels’ performance introduces an Atticus Finch that is more human than saint, which makes him all the more admirable.

This production of To Kill A Mockingbird is truly an ensemble piece, which is what makes it so rare. Yes, the central relationship is between a daughter and her father, but the story itself is a reflection of society as a whole. Each individual cast member thrives, bringing a fulfilling sense of community to the production.

Gbenga Akinnagbe is heartbreaking as Tom Robinson, and is showcased beautifully in Sorkin’s new script. The awareness he brings to Tom’s situation only makes his story more tragic; and he makes the most of the opportunity provided to give this character the platform missing from the original novel. The voice of Calpurnia is also brought to the foreground in this adaptation, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson steals every scene. Richardson Jackson is a masterclass in physicality in every scene, her body language changing in relation to whoever is in the room with her. Calpurnia begins by holding her tongue, before questioning Atticus’ theory that decency really should extend to people like Bob Ewell in one of the most powerful scenes in the show.

Every story needs a villain, and Frederick Weller is absolutely despicable as Bob Ewell. Changes to the script make it even more difficult to “climb into his skin and walk around in it”, and Weller delivers a formidable performance. Frederick Weller goes above and beyond and is absolutely chilling in every single scene. In the role of Ewell’s daughter, Mayella, Erin Wilhelmi is gut-wrenching. While Mayella may be falsely accusing Tom Robinson of rape, she is still a victim of domestic abuse. Once again Sorkin’s book works its magic as Mayella’s accusing words mirror her father’s, and Wilhelmi mirrors the body language of Weller - leaving no doubt to anyone who has orchestrated the event. Wilhelmi’s performance is moving, leading the audience to the conclusion that Mayella is also a victim of time and circumstance.

One of the most powerful pieces of this production of To Kill A Mockingbird lies within its staging. Entrances through the house immediately submerge the audience into Maycomb County. The courtroom itself is set to include the audience. There is the judge’s box, a witness stand, tables for the prosecution and defense, and a jury box; all facing towards the audience. The staging transports the audience from the Shubert Theatre to the gallery of Maycomb County’s courtroom, once again placing us into the story to bear witness to the trial as a member of the community.

In staging the courtroom this way, the audience is forced to face the jury box, which remains empty. Those twelve empty seats are perhaps the most powerful part of the entire production. Bartlett Sher’s clever staging of this specific moment is thought-provoking.

It leaves the audience with questions: Is it a representation of society as a whole? Are we, the audience who sit silently through the trial, responsible? Does it simply take away the humanity of the jury? Or is the jury absent because Tom Robinson’s fate was sealed regardless of how the trial progressed? While it seems intended to be a reflection of society as a whole; the additional reasons for the absence of the jurors remains with audiences long after the curtain falls.

Broadway’s To Kill A Mockingbird is both a wonderful adaptation of a classic, as well as a brilliant stand alone. The magnificent new production is incredibly profound, removing the nostalgic air of the original novel and introducing the unsettling reminder that the themes addressed within the story are as relevant today as they were then. Raised on the original novel, as well as the 1962 film, I was not expecting such a raw take on this classic piece. The novel still remains one of my favourite books, but the impact of this production has only enriched the experience and lead to a deeper understanding. To Kill A Mockingbird may deviate from the novel, but it is still a touching salute to Harper Lee’s ground-breaking work; proving once again that this story is truly timeless.

All Rise.

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