“All rise,” a character says early in Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s an instruction common to the courtroom, where much of the play takes place. But as those two words are periodically repeated throughout this extraordinary production, they also become a sort of mantra, an appeal—as plain and direct as any being made on Broadway right now—to our better angels, or whatever it is that elevates minds and souls tested by troubled times or base instincts.
Sorkin is most widely known as a screenwriter; in films such as Steve Jobs, Moneyball and The Social Network and TV’s “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom,” he has crafted verbal scores capturing with rat-a-tat panache the witty conviviality and brutality of the ambitious and privileged. Lee’s novel, one of the most cherished in American literature, presents him with an entirely different milieu: a small Alabama town in 1934, ravaged by the Great Depression, in which community takes precedence over individual aspiration.
As anyone familiar with Lee’s story or the history of the Jim Crow South knows well, the sense of community here is not all-embracing. Not unlike our country today, Maycomb has seen many of its citizens—the men, especially—broken economically and spiritually, their pockets depleted and their pride wounded by not only the market crash but also the lingering fallout of the Civil War. It’s under these fraught circumstances that Tom Robinson, a black laborer, finds himself falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the poor, white daughter of Bob Ewell, as virulent a racist as ever stalked the pages of a middle-school text. The impossible task of summoning angels to rescue Tom falls to middle-aged lawyer and widower Atticus Finch, a name that has become synonymous with nobility as Americans define it, by character rather than class.
In Lee’s book, and the beloved 1962 film adaptation, featuring a screenplay by Horton Foote, the story is relayed to us years later by Scout, Atticus’s daughter, who is turning six when events start unfolding. Sorkin retains the sense of devastated innocence augmented by an older, more worldwise perspective, but adds theatrical punch by having Scout’s older brother, Jem, and Dill, the child they befriend while he’s visiting the neighborhood—all played, under Bartlett Sher’s direction, by adult actors—accompany and embellish her narration, sometimes addressing the audience themselves.
The device is typical of Sorkin’s work here: utterly respectful and faithful in spirit—lest anyone feared otherwise, after an attorney representing Lee’s estate sued the production over an early draft (leading to a counter-suit, then an out-of-court settlement)—while asking us to look forward, and inward, and around us, positing that multi-pronged challenge in the guise of vital, thrilling entertainment. Sher has proven a master of this approach in numerous revivals of American classics, as well as new works; together, the director and playwright allow us to climb inside the skin, as Atticus would put it, of characters representing another time and place, and pace, but seem instantly, sometimes disturbingly accessible.
The performances are better than perfect; they’re revelatory, with each actor serving both the novel’s humane vision and the nuances and adjustments Sorkin has contributed. Jeff Daniels’ magnificent Atticus—a new high-water mark for an actor whose presence makes any play (or film) worth seeing— may strike you as a more natural small-town Southern lawyer than the more patrician (if unforgettable) Gregory Peck. Hardy and a bit gruff, with a perceptible paunch, Daniels’ Atticus isn’t above physically confronting a threatening bigot. But when he speaks to his children about the importance of having empathy for all people, his compassion is as true and as tender as his presence before the court is mighty—and in the latter arena, Sorkin furnishes opportunities for Atticus to express his frustration with the case, the system and even his client in terms that can be more blunt and biting than Lee’s or Foote’s.
Tom and Calpurnia, the Finches’ black housekeeper, are more intimately acquainted with the injustices of that system than any legal scholar could be, and Sorkin gives them more frank and expansive voices as well. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s warm, witty and wise Calpurnia is both a constant source of love and loyalty to Atticus’s family and his sparring partner, contesting in particular his stubborn insistence on looking for the good in everyone.
As Tom, Gbenga Akinnagbe emerges as more than the “quiet, respectable, humble Negro” Lee’s Atticus describes to the jury in his closing argument; Akinnagbe’s gently robust performance captures those qualities, but also Tom’s despair over the intolerance that has doomed him. His candor with Atticus, like Calpurnia’s, is made credible by the trust and fellowship this play’s earthy hero inspires. Tom’s integrity and dignity are thrown into even sharper relief by the bone-chilling malevolence of Frederick Weller’s Bob, and the repression-fueled hysteria of Erin Wilhelmi’s fragile, feral Mayella.
No characters are more central to Mockingbird than the children, of course, and by having Scout share the telling of her tale with Dill and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Jem, Sorkin has provided showcases for a trio of superb, youngish actors. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal Scout than the ageless Celia Keenan-Bolger, who imbues the precocious tomboy with all the intensity and wonder you’d expect. Gideon Glick is quirkily charming and moving as the eccentric, brilliant and haunted Dill, a character inspired by Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote, while Will Pullen’s impish Jem wins our hearts as a mischief-maker who is nonetheless undeniably Atticus’s son.
The three remain in almost constant motion, whether at play or in the courtroom, where they are fascinated, appalled observers. Characteristically, Sher enhances the urgency and suspense of the piece in part through physical movement; actors carry parts of Miriam Buether’s handsome, bucolic set, which exudes a sense of resilience and tradition—the Finches’ modest but sturdy home, the large tree that sits resolvedly beside it—that also inform darker features of the story, like the hooded, armed men who find Atticus outside Tom’s jail cell at another key juncture in the children’s disillusionment.
An angel does finally arrive in this Mockingbird, briefly—and too late for Tom—but memorably, as he did in the book and movie. Danny Wolohan plays Boo Radley, the notorious, elusive neighbor the kids have stalked and feared, who emerges as their selfless protector. With his delicate, ghostlike presence, Boo drives home the point that goodness can indeed lurk in unexpected places, and that appearances, be they due to rumor or race, should never figure into judging a man or woman.
Mockingbird’s lessons may seem obvious, but like so many on offer at this moment, they also come across as depressingly timely and necessary. By acknowledging that need in a straightforward, utterly unpretentious manner, accompanied by blazing artistry, Sorkin, Sher and their cast and collaborators have given us a production that feels as urgent and eternal as its source.
To Kill a Mockingbird opened December 13, 2018, at the Shubert Theatre. Tickets and information: information: tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com