How do you adapt a book as universally known and beloved as To Kill a Mockingbird for the stage? After all, Harper Lee’s coming-of-age story about racism in the Depression-era American south has been read by (or at least assigned to) nearly every single high-schooler in the nation in the sixty years since it was published. There was even an Oscar-winning movie in 1962, in which actor Gregory Peck had all of America fantasizing about growing up with a dad as noble as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch.
Anyone planning to attend Spokane’s First Interstate Center for the Arts touring production, running now through Dec. 10, who worries that playwright Aaron Sorkin has either ruined the iconic story or, perhaps worse, has nothing new to explore, can put their fears to rest. Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have faithfully recreated the events and much of the language of the original book, yet have managed to dig even deeper, adding subtle layers to characters and plot.
“The audience comes into the theater and probably 98% of them have seen the movie and there’s one Atticus in their head,” said Sorkin in an interview with Variety last year. “It takes about four minutes to make the audience forget about Gregory Peck and realize that they’re seeing a new piece and a new Atticus.”
Broadway veteran and award-winning actor Richard Thomas, well-known to most Boomers for his iconic role in the 1970s TV series “The Waltons,” gives a superb performance portraying Atticus. His ability to embody the lawyer, widower and father feels as comfortable as a porch swing swaying in the breeze. All eyes stay on Thomas’ Atticus, especially in the courtroom scenes.
He is a less stoic Atticus than we are used to, prone to outbursts of impatience and humor.
There is no jury box on stage, rather the litigator addresses the members of the audience, shouting at us, begging us to take the word of a Black man over a white woman. We become, in effect, the 25th member of a 24-member cast, and we are all challenged to do better.
Sorkin has Atticus deliver his famous line about mockingbirds directly to us, reminding the audience that we can “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The mockingbird of course is Thomas Robinson, a Black field worker in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, who is accused of raping a white woman. Atticus is guilted into taking on the assignment of defending the innocent Robinson, knowing full well that he himself will be vilified by his fellow white townspeople.
Much of the action is told from the perspective of Atticus’ children, 11-year-old Jem and 7-year-old Scout. Often joining the two Finch children is the humorous but wise Dill, the scene-stealing 8-year-old queer boy visiting his aunt in Maycomb for the summer. The three kids are the only characters to break the fourth wall, addressing the audience to make observations or to narrate within the action, sometimes acting almost as a Greek chorus. The shift in perspective and timeline are the first indications this is a brand-new play.
The Black characters in this version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have less blind admiration for Atticus than in the original novel. In a refreshing twist, they also express more opinions and agency. Robinson, portrayed with convincing complexity by Yaegel T. Welch, at a critical point in the trial, rebels against his lawyer’s advice. Robinson’s dignity as a human being demands that he tell his truth, despite Atticus’ admonishments.
The family’s Black maid, Calpurnia, checks her boss’ white privilege a couple of times, protesting when Atticus scolds the children for not seeing the good in all people. Calpurnia makes it clear that Atticus’ restraint and respect for a racist such as Bob Ewell, the father of the girl falsely accusing Robinson of rape, translates into complete disrespect for her.
Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia is a standout, especially her perfect southern accent and spot-on intonations. The tension between her character and Thomas’ Atticus feels right, and his reaction to her calling him out is a righteous deflation of his white savior persona. We sense she views Atticus as a work in progress, but she does not give up on him, no matter how exhausting the work.
The liberal-minded Atticus takes it on the chin from the white poor and working farmers in the play as well. He is accused of being a slick, educated elite who looks down on the lower classes. People like Atticus who defend a Black man against a white woman are dismissed as “N-word lovers.” The N-word is indeed hurled throughout the play, serving as a reminder that the days of constant racist slurs are not so far behind us.
The Boo Radley storyline is sprinkled throughout, providing welcome comic relief and mystery. The kids do a lot of running around the porch, slapping the screen door behind them, but this play is primarily a riveting courtroom drama.
Perhaps most different in this adaptation is the realization that Atticus is no savior, but literally a failure. No one is removing their hats or rising from their seats to pay him respect when he passes by. But we learn from the children that Atticus continues to rise up and fight, even as he continues to fail.
The audience hears the call, too. Progress is relative. Nowadays we may not use the N-word, but Black men in this country are still more likely to be wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit or be killed by police officers.
Lee’s story resonates like a Dixie tornado, not just because of its focus on inequality and brutality back in the Old South days, but because it reminds us of present-day lynchings happening in all parts of our nation, right now. George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean … their names are not uttered, but they come to mind nevertheless, and the list goes on and on.
Scout’s demand: “All rise,” echoes in the theater long after the curtain falls on “To Kill A Mockingbird.”