When Scout, Jem and Dill take the stage in Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, they’re not rolling a tire down the sidewalk or peering into the knothole of some old oak tree. The children — played, with no excuses offered or needed, by adults — appear in what seems to be an empty, dilapidated building, maybe an old courthouse fallen into neglect. Justice itself has become a thing of memory, its paint peeling.
What really happened that night Bob Ewell died, wonders Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), the most inquisitive and persistent of the three? Could a man really fall on his own knife? Something about the grim story of that harvest night doesn’t add up, no matter what Atticus or the local newspaper said, and young Miss Finch (is she still young?) wants her brother, her best friend and the audience at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre to reconsider. Everything.
The set-up is a Sorkin masterstroke, perfectly executed by director Bartlett Sher, a dreamy gambit that justifies every liberty this simultaneously revisionist and faithful Mockingbird will take over the next two hours-plus. When, exactly, are the young Finches and their beloved childhood friend reuniting for this exorcism? How long has Scout been pondering that grim evening, when she and her brother were viciously attacked, when their attacker died, when one neighborhood mystery emerged from the shadows and another took its place among the secrets? Weeks? Months?
I’d suggest years. Fifty-eight, to be exact, and what we’re being asked to recall and re-evaluate is not merely an event dreamed up by Harper Lee to cap her landmark 1960 fiction of race, justice, bigotry and faith. Scout and Sorkin and Sher are demanding we reconsider that fiction itself. Our “national novel,” as the New York Times has called it, is the very subject of the new play that bears its name.
With a fine, natural performance from Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch – the most honest man in Maycomb, Alabama, as his daughter Scout remembers him – Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird, opening tonight, sets a route for itself that is bound to lose some of those who can’t set aside their loyalties to a cherished book or a movie that can still send shivers with the first few notes of its Elmer Bernstein score. (The play barely, if at all, references Robert Mulligan’s triumphant 1962 film, though TV commercials for the production take full sentimental use of that music).
Resisters do so at their own expense. Sorkin’s shrewd Mockingbird doesn’t demand our exclusive loyalty — my love for the movie, and for Gregory Peck and Mary Badham and Horton Foote and Kim Stanley’s uncredited narration is undiminished, my lesser affinity for the novel neither strengthened nor weakened. What Sorkin does require, though, is an open mind, a willingness to question the things we so admired about Lee’s tale and its characters, to hold their lessons up for scrutiny in an age when so little of what we once took for granted can withstand the heat. He demands no less of his characters, keeping us in good company from start to finish.
Following the brief memory-play preamble on that barren warehouse-looking set, young Jean Louise, Jeremy (Will Pullen) and Charles Baker Harris (Gideon Glick) — Scout, Jem and Dill — are quickly surrounded by the makings of a courtroom (Miriam Buether’s set design is a marvel of efficiency, as a jury box, witness stand, judge’s bench, attorney stations and spectator seats sweep quickly into place). All but the jury box will be filled with people — we never see the men who will decide the fate of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe).
Robinson, of course, is the man who stands falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi). He’s black, she’s white, it’s 1934 Alabama and the lynching is all but accomplished, legal or otherwise.
You know the plot. Scout, Jem and Dill while away a summer that would have been sleepy without the drama and ugliness stirred up by the trial, a local event of outsize proportion that has unleashed a torrent of hate, bile and bigotry that a good man like Atticus didn’t see coming. He doesn’t recognize his own neighbors.
And here we have the first inkling of what Sorkin is up to. The creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom didn’t invent the dark hearts of Maycomb’s townfolk — Lee did. Even in the book (though not the film), cranky old Mrs. Dubose (Phyllis Somerville) does more than call Scout an ugly little girl: She uses vile racial epithets to disparage Atticus for defending Tom, words that so sting and infuriate Jem that he destroys the sickly woman’s prized flower garden.
No, Sorkin didn’t invent that scene, but its prominence here is no more subtle than it should be in drawing an arrow from Maycomb to Charlottesville, from then to now, from the Finches’ unrecognizable neighbors to our very own.
Sorkin hasn’t been quiet about the resemblance of, say, Donald Trump’s “blame on both sides” to Atticus Finch’s “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute.” Though Harper Lee romanticizes Atticus less than memory might have — I suspect Gregory Peck did most of the shaping there — there’s no question that Sorkin pits the other Mockingbird characters against him with a newfound ferocity. Jem considers his father nothing less than a weakling for attempting to understand — or make excuses for — the foul, threatening displays of Bob Ewell, the man who beat and raped his daughter and steered the blame to Tom Robinson. “I could split Bob Ewell in half and God himself would call it a public service,” Jem says heatedly.
Calpurnia, the Finch’s African American housekeeper (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), cuts Atticus no slack either. In perhaps the sharpest divergence from the novel and movie, Cal is given a voice here that will strike many as altogether too modern as she verbally dresses down Atticus for his naive faith in the goodness of his neighbors, his conviction that they’ll do the right thing when push comes to shove. They’re racist, sure, but not to the extent of sending an innocent man to jail or worse.
Cal, of course, knows better, and she knows the white community in ways Atticus couldn’t imagine. Mrs. Dubose, Cal says, was a “Negro-hater” even before taking ill, before the morphine stopped easing the pain, before whatever other excuse Atticus has for the old woman’s hatefulness. Cal is barely surprised at the cops’ latest killing of an unarmed black man, and she lets Atticus know, in no uncertain terms, just how blind he is.
As if heading off charges of anachronism or even white-washing the restrictive limits of what a black servant of the era could get away with, Sorkin has Scout remark on Calpurnia’s long history with Atticus — she raised his wife from childhood, and raised her children — and, in a way, raised Atticus when Mrs. Finch died. Cal and Atticus, says Scout, are like sister and brother.
It’s an unnecessary clarification, I think, and a bit clunky, aimed at folks in the audience who won’t accept the play’s rules and expansive boundaries established in that dreamy prologue. Let Cal say what she wants, no explaining — this is the Mockingbird of our collective daydream, the Mockingbird we’re revisiting with our 21st century notions, and her boldness is as satisfying as the laugh that erupts from Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson at Atticus’ quaint notion of courtroom justice.
Cal and Tom — both winningly portrayed, both full of surprises — aren’t the only characters given bigger life. Dill, played by Glick with immense and lovable charm, becomes the Truman Capote-in-waiting that we know him to be, witty with a feel for the underdog, his zest for life not yet drained. Sorkin slips in a bit of Capote’s own biography — Capote, too, was locked in rooms as his mother went husband-hunting — and Dill’s obvious preference for the company of Jem over Scout hints at the hard times ahead for this boy so out of place and time.
Glick’s buoyant performance is matched by Keenan-Bolger’s purposeful Scout and Pullen’s confused, searching Jem. Only rarely and briefly does one or the other slip into something perhaps a bit too child-like, mostly keeping to some middle ground of adult memory. Scout can be a petulant child; Keenan-Bolger simply plays petulance. A few moments of over-stomping aside, the approach works so well that the alternative — child actors — seems a very bad one indeed.
Picking others from the fine secondary cast seems contrary to the ensemble spirit, but, almost at random, there’s Dakin Matthews’ sharply funny Judge Taylor; Wilhelmi’s wispy, pathetic Mayella; Somerville’s hateful Mrs. Dubose; Danny Wolohan’s tender Boo Radley (and conflicted Mr. Cunningham); and Neal Huff’s Link Deas, a book character absent from the movie but offering a surprising viewpoint found no where else in this tale.
To my mind, only Frederick Weller’s evil Bob Ewell tosses the pitch too wide, and Sorkin deserves much of the blame there. In this Mockingbird, Bob Ewell isn’t only a rapist Klansman, but an alt-right mouthpiece resentful of pseudo-intellectuals who get invited to all the right parties. Instead of underplaying the neo-Nazi diatribes with seething resentment, Weller is inclined (or directed) to go full-on cartoon redneck, overdoing a character that certainly needs no overdoing.
Perhaps Sorkin and Sher felt the play needed Bob’s extra villainy to justify Atticus’ eventual out-of-character breakdown, the moment when the play’s questioning of the book’s ’60s-vintage liberal ideal comes most fully into focus. If so, they should have trusted their material and Daniels’ convincing performance. By the time Atticus comes to question his own moral code, and Sorkin has us contemplating the limits of tolerance and the boundaries of forgiveness, this Mockingbird has already landed its punches.