Aaron Sorkin certainty undertook a difficult task when he chose to adapt Harper Lee’s beloved novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” into a play. Almost every school child reads this novel and so expectations were high. In an attempt to please (or should I say appease?) lovers of the book, Sorkin’s adaptation, currently playing at the Shubert Theatre, tries its best to directly replicate all the scenes and dialogue from the original.
Sorkin did, however, make some changes. Instead of the beloved Scout narrating, her brother Jem and neighbor Dill share the duties. This seems odd and unjustified, as does the choice to have the three children played by adult actors (more on that later). The other major change was some restructuring: the play does not advance chronologically, by starts at the end in a frame device, goes back to the beginning, and repeatedly jumps to the courtroom. Unlike the choices about the narrators, this works rather well. In particular, the splitting up of the courtroom scene is very effective. It is without a doubt the best scene as well as the most famous, so breaking it up allows us to enjoy it throughout the entire 2 hours and 45 minute play.
A lot about “To Kill a Mockingbird” feels hauntingly relevant: violent racism, a skewed justice system, and the terrors of patriarchy. The play is clearly trying to make a statement about how eerily similar Trump’s America of 2019 is to Maycomb, Alabama in 1934. On the other hand, there is quite a bit about “To Kill a Mockingbird” that feels dated and un-timely. Is now the moment for a story about a false rape allegation? Do we need KKK members and the n-word on stage right now? Should we be applauding a white man who covers up a crime? I’m not sure.
The larger issue here is that in this story about racism, the black characters are given very little chance to speak for themselves. Sorkin did expand the roles of Tom (the accused, played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Calpurnia (the maid, played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson), but it still feels like a story of a white man talking about blackness. It has some valences with “Green Book” where instead of focusing on the victimized black man, the protagonist is the heroic white savior. Atticus ends quite literally as a savior: standing on a platform offering his hand to help raise Calpurnia up to his level.
As our savior in a tan suit, Jeff Daniels impressively helms the show. The same, sadly, cannot be said of Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, who is bizarre, unconvincing, and one of the many actors in the production who can’t seem to master the Alabama dialect. The other adults playing children, Will Pullen as Jem and Gideon Glick as Dill are much more successful casting choices. Glick’s performance is masterful; his blend of comedy and fragility often steals the show. The rest of the cast feels a bit bland, blending into the neutral-tones of the Miriam Buether’s set and Ann Roth’s costumes, but this is most likely a byproduct of the writing. The play may have a large cast, but it is a story about Scout and Atticus and the personal journeys they go on; everyone else is just there for filler sadly.
This play has all the stylistic markers of a Barlett Sher production: a big cast, smooth but large-scale set changes, and an attempt at political relevancy. Sometimes his updates are extraordinary, like his “King and I” in 2015, but at other times they seem minimal at best, like the still-running “My Fair Lady.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was radical when it was written. But now? Not so much. Despite this, the play has a sense of magnanimity that makes it absolutely worth seeing.