by Erika Sasseville and Christine Sarkes (a mother/daughter review)
The national discussion over white supremacy in America needs Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant and heartrending adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It was only a matter of time before Sorkin–the all-time MVP of writing aspirational heroes–found his way to tackling American literature’s favorite father/lawyer, Atticus Finch. Just as “The West Wing” gave us a brilliant and kind ideal of an American President and “The Newsroom” showed the importance of journalistic integrity, To Kill a Mockingbird presents the ideal of a lawyer in the Jim Crow South in the character of Atticus Finch (“The Waltons” Richard Thomas). However, Sorkin’s true genius lies in using this paragon of virtue as a mirror; reflecting the flaws and failures of Atticus Finch so we can see them in ourselves.
Set in Alabama during the Great Depression in 1934, To Kill a Mockingbird is an enduring and still relevant story of racial injustice and childhood innocence. The cast of characters includes widowed father Atticus, his daughter Scout, his son Jem, their housekeeper and caretaker, Calpurnia, their visiting friend Dill, and a mysterious neighbor, the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley. Atticus is appointed by the court to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a poor, notoriously vicious white man named Bob Ewell. Racial tensions in Maycomb flare. Atticus, Scout and Jem become targets of abuse from schoolmates, neighbors, and townspeople.
By having the children Scout (Melanie Moore), Jem (Justin Mark), and Dill (Minnesota’s own Steven Lee Johnson) serve as narrators and omnipresent witnesses to the proceedings, Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher make certain we feel the weight of the town’s injustices even more acutely. Through Jem, Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), Dill, and Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) himself, Sorkin questions the morality of Atticus’ Christian tolerance. Atticus’ moral compass is central to the story. He is kind to and respectful of everyone and always sees the best in people. These are admirable traits, but this is where Sorkin’s penetrating understanding of American socio-political culture dominates. Does understanding WHY someone behaves badly mean that we must accept that behavior? If we tolerate the racism and injustice of others, aren’t we complicit in the harm they cause?
The play jumps back and forth through the courtroom and town events, while taking time to focus on the backstory and each character’s perspective. And while the actors portraying the children give their narration soul and humor, it is Thomas as Finch and Welch as Robinson who bring a searing vulnerability and authenticity to their scenes. Arianna Gayle Stucki as Mayella Ewell seethes with racism, damage and self-hatred. In fact, the entire cast is superb. With a play as heavy as this, we appreciated the comedic timing of Johnson as Dill. Moore as Scout infuses her character with the sweet toughness of one of our favorite literary girl characters, but her hard-to-place accent was distracting at times. The very clever set design facilitated a fast pace and having the actors move the set pieces on and off stage added to the flow and movement of the action.
As a self-proclaimed “Sorkin Scholar,” it was not surprising to me that Sorkin’s signature writing style would suit Harper Lee’s story so well. Fans of “The West Wing” and Sorkin’s other works will notice a handful of familiar jokes, phrases, and comedic timing. In our view, this play should be mandatory viewing for every American high school student. In fact, in February 2020, the play became the first-ever Broadway play to perform at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in front of approximately 18,000 New York City public school students, also marking the largest attendance at a single performance of a play ever in world theater. Some have called it the most important play ever produced.
To Kill a Mockingbird adapted by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bartlett Sher, based on the novel by Harper Lee. Designed by Miriam Buether, with costumes by Ann Roth, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound by Scott Lehrer and an original score by Adam Guettel, design adaptation and supervision by Edward Pierce. Now through Sunday, Feb. 19 at the historic Orpheum Theatre, 805 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Performance times are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Ticket prices start at $40.
4 thoughts on “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Thank you for your recommendation. It is excellent to read a review that provides the perspective of two generations of theatre lovers.
Thanks, Betsy!! And you have to guess who said what!
Excellent review. Scout’s southern Bronx accent did throw me immediately as well but eventually I just took it for what it was and just listened to her words. Loved the play more than any I have seen in a very long time. It stirred some very strong emotions in my husband as well. He had to step out a couple times.