By now most of you have seen multiple reviews of this take on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel. Many more have read the volume from which it derives. The story is related by Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, a character based on Lee’s 10 year-old self. It was inspired by her attorney father’s defense of two black men accused of murder. The men were convicted and hanged. Lee senior never took another criminal case.
The Broadway version is well worth seeing, despite my caveats, especially for those unfamiliar with the original film and/or book. It’s also regrettably timely.
Synopsis in brief:
Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) a paragon of integrity and rectitude, is morally guilted by Judge Taylor (Dakin Matthews) into representing Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). The black man is accused of raping 19 year-old Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi) who is white. Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the alleged victim’s father, is a member of the KKK and as vociferously mean and bigoted as they come.
Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeff Daniels
Approaching the insubstantial case with dogged belief that friends and neighbors will do the right thing despite decades of racism, Finch instead finds mob mentality. Ewell threatens him. Neighbors ostracize the mild mannered widower and his family. Events lead to radical difference of mindset for the lawyer.
Also pivotal to the plot is the shedding of innocence of Atticus’ two children, Jeremy – nicknamed Jem who struggles with the meaning of manhood (Will Pullen), and precocious, goodhearted tomboy, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Summer friend Dill Harris (Gideon Glick), apparently modeled on childhood neighbor Truman Capote (then Truman Persons), is a sensitive boy who becomes the third musketeer. Interaction with local recluse Arthur “Boo” Radley (Danny Wolohan), thought dangerous by the gossiping town, adds another dimension to assumption versus truth.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Jeff Daniels
Fortunately playwright Aaron Sorkin seems to have made only one critical character change. The Finch family’s longtime housekeeper Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is, in this version, given license to talk back, expressing opinions from black perspective. In fact, she and her employer are observed to act like brother and sister. I would say that’s going a bit far. The change works in all but one directorial instance when Calpurnia angrily yells at Finch. This would never happen, even with newfound liberties.
Sorkin has chosen to make the children omnipresent, almost always in a scene, eschewing a fourth wall. Dill often hovers with nothing to contribute (a directorial decision), but this also works. The author has wrangled a complex story into two plus hours of engrossing drama peppered with plausibly humorous moments (a considerable feat). Morality is clear and moving without being shoved down our throats. So is human fallibility. An elegant, economic piece very much in keeping with context.
I can think of few artists besides Jeff Daniels who could step into Gregory Peck’s iconic characterization. The actor has become publicly substantial, assuming role after role with pith and purpose. Finch’s stubborn, obtuse beliefs are so vividly portrayed, they’re startling. We see a laconic southerner, regretful about circumstances, honorably coping.
Daniels treats stage progeny with an ideal blend of tenderness, discipline, honesty, and distraction. Affectionate admonishment of Judge Taylor is priceless. Circling a court witness, he almost thinks aloud. Interaction with Calpurnia is almost sweet, reflecting a much earlier dynamic. A single violent moment elicits audience gasps. When essential beliefs are challenged, we can feel the internal wrench of change.
Erin Wilhelmi’s Mayella is splendid; vulnerable/beaten down and vibrating with fear. LaTanya Richardson Jackson gives us a thoughtful, feisty, maternal Calpurnia who physically carries herself in a way that further illuminates character. The always reliable Dakin Matthews inhabits Judge Taylor, bringing to life every moment of humor, manipulation, and sincerity. Gbenga Akinnagbe’s brief turn as Tom Robinson is sympathetic and aptly low key.
Unfortunately, in the first of many casting miscalculations, Director Bartlett Sher has opted for adults playing Scout, Jem, and Dill. Think about the number of talented child actors who have tread the boards in recent years, how many are currently in shows.
Though Celia Keenan-Bolger may arguably deserve the Best Supporting Actor Tony for grounded personification, including kid-like cadence, physicality and reaction, she’s simply too old for the role. How are we to empathize with children when we see grown-ups?! For my money, Will Pullen gives Jem neither youthful attributes nor center of gravity. Gideon Glick manages to emulate boyhood and fill his shoes with personality, but is again, miscast.
There’s more: Frederick Weller’s Bob Ewell lacks rage and brutality=threat as well as looking barely old enough to have eight children, including a 19 year-old. The actor tries hard, but comes up short. Neal Huff’s Link Deas, ostensibly a town drunk with considerable history, seems, though acted with nuance, boyish. Prosecutor Horace Gilmer played as a lightweight (despite volume) by Stark Sands, projects none of the inbred vehemence natural to a character raised on lifelong discrimination. The actor seems to zone out between lines.
Frederick Weller, Stark Sands, Gideon Glick, Erin Wilhelmi
Except for awkwardly placed children, Director Bartlett Sher moves his cast smoothly from scene to scene. Gestures are fitting. Pacing is excellent. Characters are given time to think and feel. Accents are, for the most part, just right. The jury, however, might be instructed to show some reaction.
Miriam Buether has, with a nod to similarities of Bridges of Madison County, created an evocative, fluid set that works on all fronts. Love the tree.
Ann Roth’s Costumes are exactly as we might envisage the denizens of Depression era Maycomb, Alabama. Her painterly figures are aided and abetted by Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young associates.
I found the device of an organist and guitar player at either side of the stage unnecessarily distracting. What little music (and sound) they contribute could’ve come from backstage.
Also Featuring: Danny McCarthy, Phyllis Somerville, Liv Rooth, Danny Wolohan.
Photos by Julia Cervantes
Opening: The Company
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
A new play by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Sam S. Shubert Theatre
235 West 44th Street