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To Kill A Mockingbird

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

To Kill A Mockingbird

Jeff Daniels.  Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird was a national favorite book and film, widely read and watched.  When it was first scheduled for production on Broadway, I wondered, a bit skeptically, if it would stand the test of Broadway.  Would the story of racial prejudice during the Great Depression come across as a sepia-colored memory piece out of touch in the tech-heavy millennium?

And those precocious children being played by adults, how is that going to come off?  As an Aaron Sorkin fan, I felt comfortable with his taking on the adaptation and yet, because the book and film have always felt perfect, how will Sorkinspeech add substance?

As for Gregory Peck, in the film he was the definitive Atticus Finch, a man of unshakable moral ethics, a widower with two children and a man whose inherent goodness would never waver.  Could anyone match him?  When I entered the Shubert Theater, it was with the image of Gregory Peck as Atticus.  After watching the play, I now had a new definitive Atticus, Jeff Daniels.  Peck was admirable as the character in the book and film, but Sorkin's country lawyer with a moral backbone  that evolves.  Daniels understands and communicates the layers of Atticus in this Broadway production. 

The sharp large cast is on target and brilliantly directed by Bartlett Sher.  As for the three children, once the play begins, any concerns of their being performed by adults disappears.  The lead character and narrator is Jean Louise ("Scout") Finch played by Celia Keenan-Bolger has the naivete of a little girl, still devoted to her father, a tomboy tagging around after her older brother, Jem.  Jem, four years older, played by Will Pullen, is protective of his sister but reaching the age of questioning values and even criticizing Atticus.  Meeting a glib, wickedly bright young boy named Charles Baker Harris ("Dill"), visiting from Louisiana, the three kids spent much of the summer trying to get a mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan), to leave his house.

But all this was put aside with the trial of Tom Robinson.  This becomes the central point of their lives, with their father involved in a case about justice that has no question about the outcome.  A black man, Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), has been arrested for raping a young white girl, Mayella Ewell, a browbeaten, withered 19-year-old portrayed with devious conviction by Erin Wilhelmi.  Frederick Weller is her bone-chilling, frightening father, Bob Ewell, a KKK member.  Robinson, his left arm limp and useless, is nuanced here as Sorkin gives Akinnagbe the chance to explain Robinson's side of the encounter he had with Mayella.

Even with a damaged left arm, Robinson's trial is predestined since in rural Alabama, a fair trial was impossible for a black man's word against a white girl although she is obviously lying.  Before the trial, wry Judge Taylor, played by Dakin Matthews, convinces Atticus to represent Robinson, hoping Atticus' reputation for honesty will give some semblance of fairness. 

At the aftermath of the trial, Robinson is dead and later, Atticus' children are attacked.  Atticus must adjust his belief in basic universal goodness and he realizes he does not know his neighbors as well as he thought.  Jem realizes his father is not faultless. Atticus has always urged the children to try to understand why Bob Ewell is so virally dispicable ("You gotta crawl around in another man's skin 'fore you can really know him").  But now, Jem has decided, "I could split Bob Ewell in half and God himself would call it a public service.”  

Another adjustment comes with adding layers to the character of the black housekeeper, Calpurnia.  Played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Calpurnia is a longtime part of the family.  Says Scout, Calpurnia and Atticus actually act like brother and sister, just like Scout and Jem.

Numerous supporting cast members stand out playing the townspeople, like Phyllis Somerville as Mrs. Henry Dubose, a racist, ornery old woman, spewing hatred at the children as they pass and denigrating Atticus.   One character from the book but not the film, Link Deas (Neal Huff), is the local drunk who reveals something about himself that teaches Scout, Jem and Dill to look beyond the obvious.  The threatened Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan) turns out to be a hero.

Miriam Buether designed an efficient set that is easily manipulated to show the courthouse, the jury box and the Finch's front porch and yard.  Ann Roth designed costumes befitting rural Alabama in 1934.  On each side of the stage, guitarist Allan Tedder and Kimberly Grigsby on keyboard provide composer Adam Guettel's music for a nostalgic aesthetic to the Southern small town 1934 summer. 

Says Atticus, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, a symbol of innocence, offering goodness and beauty. Several characters (Tom Robinson, Boo Radley) are revealed as innocents, threatened by hatred and bigotry.  By the end, Scout, Jem, and Dill are forced to face what was always accepted, and this transforms them just as Atticus is not the unflawed hero of the book but a man who shows personal growth.

It is an uplifting, beautifully delivered production of American values at a time we could use it. 

To Kill A Mockingbird

Shubert Theater
225 - West 44th Street. NYC
Previews: Nov. 1, 2018. Opening: Dec. 13, 2018. Open Run
Running Time: Two hours, 35 min. One intermission.
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick, Frederick Weller, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Stark Sands, Dakin Matthews, Erin Wilhelmi, Danny McCarthy, Neal Huff, Phyllis Somerville, Liv Rooth, Danny Wolohan and LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Playwright: Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Harper Lee's novel
Directed: Bartlett Sher

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
February 2019

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