By: Paulanne Simmons
February 11, 2019: Even before its official opening on Dec. 13, To Kill a Mockingbird may have been the most talked about show on Broadway. Not only is the play based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that was the inspiration for the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck; the production was almost derailed by what The New York Times called “a blistering pair of federal lawsuits.” Harper Lee’s estate was concerned over changes playwright Aaron Sorkin made to several of the characters: Atticus Finch; his children Scout and Jem; and the family housekeeper, Calpurnia.
According to Sorkin, his adaptation speaks to today’s social climate by allowing Atticus to undergo a gradual moral evolution. The estate may not have agreed, but eventually litigation was “amicably settled,” and the show did indeed go on. The resulting production, however, makes this reviewer wish the estate had not compromised. The problem is not that Sorkin made a bad choice in venturing too far from his source material, but rather that he made poor choices while writing his play.
The first bad choice was having the play narrated by the children, Scout Finch (Celia Keenan-Bolger); her brother, Jem (Will Pullen); and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick). The narration makes the play overwritten and repetitive. Sometimes the same story (such as Tom Robinson’s defense) is repeated several times.
With all this repetition, the play can scarcely take the time to fully explore several subplots. Why don’t we find out more about Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan) and why is Mrs. Henry Dubose (Phyllis Somerville) in the play at all?
What’s more, the three narrators are constantly getting in the way of the action, explaining what’s evident and telling the audience how to react, almost as if they were holding cue cards with the message “cry” or “laugh.”
To make matters worse, the children are played by adults. Did Sorkin or director Bartlett Sher make this decision? It doesn’t matter. Watching two grown men and a grown woman dressed like children, gamboling about the stage, offering tongue-in-cheek jokes and the kind of worldly wisdom that makes folks say “from the mouths of babes” turns much of the play into a vaudeville. The narration also helps split the play in two, with one half T.V. courtroom drama, the other T.V. sitcom.
Sorkin has stated that he wanted to give the black people in the story more of a voice. And so he has a “passive-aggressive” Calpurnia forever wearing a pout because (as revealed toward the end of the play) Atticus made an insensitive remark even someone not paying close attention will immediately realize is totally out of character.
When Calpurnia actually comments on the trial, her insights are limited to general remarks on the unfairness of racism. If Sorkin had really wanted to give Calpurnia a more prominent voice, he could have had her comment on what is actually happening to Tom, a man she probably knew since he was a child. She might have remembered seeing him in church or watching his mother take care of him after his accident. She might have then been a real person instead of a representative “black woman.”
And what about the black people in town? If they have any ideas about what’s going on, we certainly never hear them.
So, is there anything that works well in To Kill a Mockingbird? Of course. Miriam Buether’s set and Ann Roth’s costumes authentically re-create the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama several decades back. And Adam Guettel’s original music is folksy and haunting.
If Jeff Daniel’s Atticus Finch can find no other way to express his affection other than kissing the top of the children’s head, he is a believable southern lawyer, righteous, but not self-righteous. Dakin Matthews, who plays Judge Taylor, seems to have stepped out of a Tennessee Williams’ play (and that’s a compliment). And Erin Wilhelmi (Mayella Ewell) and Gbenga Akinnagbe (Tom Robinson) both tell their side of the story with conviction (Wilhelmi with the conviction that she is lying). As for Keenan-Bolger, Pullen and Glick, one can only imagine what they had to go through in order to find their inner child.
Leaving the Shubert Theatre, one thought came to mind: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
To Kill A Mockingbird **1/2
225 W. 44th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 1pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Running time: two hours and 35 mins. including intermission. $39—$189.
(212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Julieta Cervantes