Producers of To Kill a Mockingbird chose not to distribute scripts to reviewers – a strange decision. Even the junkiest jukebox musical or solo vanity project offers critics a text from which to quote accurately, or to jog their memories. And while perhaps it was not his call, wouldn’t Aaron Sorkin – who adapted Harper Lee’s bestselling 1960 novel – like to share his handiwork with the press? He certainly writes like a man in love with his own typing.
To anyone who has lost a weekend in West Wing DVDs or checked out HBO’s The Newsroom or simply followed Sorkin since his Broadway splash nearly 30 years ago with A Few Good Men, the jokey, rat-a-tat dialogue of this Mockingbird will not surprise. The script is peppered with smart-alecky patter, metatheatrical narrative winks and clever aphorisms by the bushel. “They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sighs the black maid Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). “But what do the things that kill us do?”
You can practically hear Sorkin kissing his fingertips after that line, which evaporates upon close inspection. I’d call such bits Sorkinisms if they were more startling and fresh. You can get away with that sort of empty rhetorical flash in series TV and movies, but truth is, Sorkin’s channeling better writers that came before: Sturges, Odets, Miller, masters of screwball banter, tough talk and impassioned speeches by great men. Men like … Agent K from Men in Black. “A person is smart. People are dumb,” lawyer Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) quips, taking his cue from … Tommy Lee Jones circa 1997?
If the jokey and pompous detours of this adaptation sound the occasional false note, the outlines of the plot have been respected. Jean Louise Finch (Celia Keenan-Bolger), known as Scout in her tomboy youth, recalls a memorable summer during which her widower father, the decent, upright lawyer Atticus Finch, defended a black man accused of rape and battery. The defendant is Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), an honest worker with a mangled hand, which Atticus sees as clear exculpatory evidence. But this is small-town Alabama in the 1930s, and the all-white jury has lived its life ignoring injustice in plain sight. And even if Atticus wins the case, how can he protect Tom from the lynch mob? Another strand from the book is the mystery of Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan), a man-child who never leaves his house, and around whom grisly myths and legends have grown. Scout, her hot-tempered older brother Jem (Will Pullen) and Boo cross paths at a critical juncture in the story.
Sorkin retains all this, as well as the suspenseful courtroom scenes where Atticus systematically dismantles the testimony of the victim, poor white trash Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi) and her seedy, KKK-belonging father Bob (Frederick Weller, in droopy moustache and stage potbelly, laying it on thick). One of his innovations is interesting and genuinely theatrical: The Lee novel is narrated solely by Scout, looking back on her childhood as an adult, but still channeling the world through six-year-old eyes. Sorkin divides the narration among Scout, Jem and their childhood friend Dill (Gideon Glick), a dreamy lad who comes to town in summer. The three pals juggle facts and take turns telling the story, forming a feisty kid chorus. You do lose the power of living behind Scout’s eyes, realizing along with her that the world is a dark place of hatred, hypocrisy and compromise. Still, advance grumbling that Sorkin had robbed Scout’s subjectivity in order to build up Atticus’ rock-ribbed saintliness were a bit exaggerated.
But there has been a trade-off. We lose some of the subtle poetry of a child’s coming of age, and in return we get a semi-woke Atticus doling out angry, liberal bumper stickers. “A mob is a place where people take a break from their conscience,” he grumbles righteously. In the novel, Bob Ewell encounters Atticus after the trial, and lobs a gob of tobacco-tinged spit in the attorney’s face. Atticus calmly wipes it away and goes about his business. But in Sorkin’s version, he nearly kicks the racist’s redneck ass. It’s satisfying in these ugly times to see our heroes fight back, but the gesture misses the point.
For all that, the production, staged with fluid intelligence by Bartlett Sher, offers a night of engaging storytelling by a corps of fine actors. Atticus may preach and sermonize, but Daniels maintains a crusty detachment that saves the character from sanctimony or idealized virtue. Keenan-Bolger is always a vibrant, aching presence on stage, and Glick’s willowy Dill adds grace notes of humor and whimsy to the proceedings. For a season that has included the dubious, overstuffed bustle and flash of The Ferryman and Network, at least Mockingbird comes by its theatrical effects honestly: with solid language and earnest moral problems.
The novel, while delivering a message of tolerance and kindness, does not moralize. In it, a black man dies for a crime he did not commit, while a white man kills another (bad) white man, but the law decides to protect him. Is that justice? Or just the way it has been and always will be? This season has brought a remarkable number of plays about black life and black pain, works clearly written in the horrifying wake of police murders of unarmed black men and women. The fact that a historically racist, white-supremacist-supported president occupies the White House only adds to their urgency. Plays such as Pass Over, Fairview, What to Send Up When It Goes Down, Eve’s Song and American Son have all dealt with the issues obliquely or head on. In the face of this wave of anger and grief, this prolonged theatrical scream that Black Lives Matter, To Kill a Mockingbird adds its faint, quaint, sepia-toned yelp of protest.
I can’t help but wonder if a playwright of color adapting the classic would have turned up the volume more effectively.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.