“All rise!” is the exhortation upon which Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” ends, and, sure enough, before the curtain could completely fall, almost all of the audience at the performance I attended had complied. If nothing else, the rapturous standing ovation affirms the producing acumen that brings Harper Lee’s classic novel to life on stage at this particular American moment. One sensed an almost tangible, nostalgic hunger to once again be comfortingly enfolded in the play’s rhetoric of enduring white liberal moral rectitude. Unfortunately, in this production, the whole never becomes the sum of its very considerable theatrical parts.
This is especially regrettable because the creative team behind “Mockingbird” consists of “A-listers” all the way. Sorkin reportedly wrote this version with Jeff Daniels in mind to play the iconic small town lawyer, Atticus Finch, who agrees to defend a black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman in 1930s Alabama. As Daniels has previously demonstrated on Broadway (in a taxing role in “Blackbird,” for which he was justly nominated for a Tony Award), and in the Emmy Award-winning Sorkin series “The Newsroom,” few actors deliver progressive indignation with more skill and conviction. Why is it then, that in this performance Daniels appears merely to be a chilly cipher, and not even a recognizably Southern one at that?
Whether offhandedly dispensing homilies about crawling underneath the skin of others, as lessons in empathy to his unconvinced children, or when not exactly taking command in the courtroom, this Atticus does not embody the qualities of charismatic righteousness consistently attributed to him by others in the script.
In the earlier parts of the play, he seems so certain of a positive outcome to the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe in a wrenchingly authentic and controlled performance), as to appear either reckless or naïve. (We never get to see Atticus interview Mayella, played by Erin Wilhelmi, before the trial but he certainly does not believe this woman.) Later when it becomes clear that his faith in the jury will not be vindicated, we see and feel little of his resulting disappointment or anguish. This rigid omniscience robs the play of both suspense and the empathy that is the stories’ hallmark.
Bartlett Sher’s direction does not help Daniels as he is often blocked downstage, with his back almost facing the audience during pivotal courtroom scenes that never seem to quite catch fire. Have we simply tired of the upright American male hero who through his goodness tries to show us the way to our better selves?
At no time did I feel heat in Daniels’ performance or Sher’s staging. The simmering tensions arising from the action were discussed, but were not viscerally conveyed. It is a problem in a play of this kind if no one breaks a sweat; either on stage or off, given all that is at stake.
The tepidity continues with Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller) playing the father of the young woman bringing the rape charge. In this version, Ewell stands in for all misunderstood white working class disaffection. Improbably, and in an example of uncharacteristically heavy-handed scripting from Sorkin, Ewell even accuses Atticus of “a Jewish taint.”
This played uncomfortably close to the zeitgeist of rising anti-Semitism and risked obvious pandering to contemporary sensibilities. (If one is seeking parallels with the “forgotten” Americans whose anger allegedly fueled the last election, look no further.) But, instead, I wished for a more robust antagonist in Ewell — one whose emasculation believably leads him to unconscionable acts, which cannot be explained away by social deprivation.
The role of the family housekeeper, Calpurnia, has been greatly expanded in this telling. (The novel has been criticized for lack of depth in the depiction of the African-American characters.) Atticus is a widower, and relies entirely upon Calpurnia for the practical running of his household. In a nicely articulated exchange between the two, it appears that Atticus also cares for Calpurnia’s good opinion and is loath to lose it. Playing the upper hand well, and deftly putting her employer in his place, LaTanya Richardson Jackson delivers a fine performance that does not take the easy way out. The détente between the two is a hard balance to get right as Calpurnia implies that Atticus will never truly be able to comprehend the reality of African-American oppression. Friendship is not possible; equality is even further out of reach, but mutual respect may be worth something.
Sher has chosen to cast adults in the pivotal roles of Atticus’ six- and nine-year-old children, Scout and Jem. While this choice may make sense given the narrative convention of the novel, namely that the action is being narrated by Scout as a grown woman reflecting on her younger self, it was challenging to accept behaviors that would have rung true with children not yet in their teens, but seemed almost bizarre when enacted by people decades older.
Celia Keenan-Bolger (Scout) navigates this territory most convincingly. Her interpretation captures Scout’s emerging feminism, and quest for justice so completely that she becomes the lodestar we follow as the action proceeds. It is a fine moment of agency when Scout recognizes a member of a would-be lynch mob as the father of her classmate and defangs his aggression with a child’s simple courtesy. Her older brother, Jem (Will Pullen) has a tougher assignment and does not depict his character’s journey from boy to man as persuasively. Gideon Glick rounds out the trio of watchers as Dill Harris, the summer visitor who casts his lot in with Scout and Jem. The character of Dill was based on Lee’s childhood friendship with Truman Capote, and Glick hints cleverly at his character’s eventual sexual orientation through revealing his precocious sensitivity and accompanying physical mannerisms.
Though a memory play with overtones of gothic magic, this “Mockingbird” is proffered on an ambiguous, somewhat clinical stage setting vaguely reminiscent of a beaux arts railway station (Miriam Buether designed the scenery).
This choice is inimical to the creation of atmosphere or sense of place. Multiple set pieces and platforms move loudly and awkwardly on and off stage, impeding effective transitions, and making the pacing of the production oddly clumsy. Live musicians on stage play incidental music contributed by composer Adam Guettel, who wrote the Tony-Award winning score of “The Light in the Piazza.” The soundscape was sparingly used and I would have relished more — even if only to cover the sound of the wheels on the scenery.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a beloved book that holds meaning for many of us, evoking themes that remain alarmingly pertinent today. It is also replete with theatrical possibilities, which in the case of this adaptation have not been fully and satisfyingly realized. But Broadway audiences would, I suspect, rather have this “Mockingbird” than none at all.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” opened on Dec. 13, 2018 at the Shubert Theatre.
Creative: Written by Aaron Sorkin; Based on the novel by Harper Lee; Original Music by Adam Guettel; Directed by Bartlett Sher; Scenic Design by Miriam Buether; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Lincoln Center Theater, Universal Theatrical Group, Eli Bush, The John Gore Organization, Len Blavatnik, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, James L. Nederlander, Eric Falkenstein, Suzanne Grant, Benjamin Lowy, Al Nocciolino, Patty Baker, Bob Boyett, Wendy Federman, Barbara H. Freitag, Heni Koenigsberg, David Mirvish, True Love Productions, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Jason Blum, Roxanne Seeman & Jamie deRoy and Eric Cornell & Jack Sennott.
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gideon Glick, Neal Huff, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Dakin Matthews, Danny McCarthy, Will Pullen, Liv Rooth, Stark Sands, Phyllis Somerville, Frederick Weller, Erin Wilhelmi, Danny Wolohan, Baize Buzan, Thomas Michael Hammond, Ted Koch, David Manis, Aubie Merrylees, Doron JéPaul Mitchell, Jeff Still, Shona Tucker, Rebecca Watson.