In poll after poll, Americans identify the fictional Atticus Finch as the greatest American hero, and Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird” as their favorite book. Few novels have taken hold of the American imagination to this degee: perhaps Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. It tells the depression-era story of the unjust trial of a Black man in a rural southern town riddled with racial hatred.
One reason for America’s fascination with “To Kill A Mockingbord” is that it deals with race relations—one of the most universal, indeed all-consuming, experiences in American Culture. I suggest that race holds a special fascination for American children, partly because, for all its ubiquity, it is not, even today, talked about all that much. Children know about race, but they know it as something embarrassing, secret, hard to understand, awkward for adults, and just icky.
Children who encounter “To Kill A Mockingbird” in a middle school classroom experience, I suspect, a profound sense of relief. Finally, the big secret is talked about. And, because of the child narrator, it’s talked about in a way that children can understand. The most complex social issue in America—from our founding to this day—is encapsulated in a story with clearly defined heroes and villains, and a comforting reassurance that “we are better than that.”
For generations of Americans (especially white Americans), “To Kill A Mockingbird” offers assurance that we understand racial prejudice, and are not ourselves racists. We are not the backward townspeople of Harper Lee’s vision. We are not illiterate child molesters. We are not ignorant of common sense and decency. We understand that Atticus Finch is to be admired, not condemned. Case closed.
But of course, it isn’t. Racism persists, as ugly and destructive as ever. Our nation continues to bleed from this primal wound.
And that is why controversy and discomfort continue to swirl about “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which, according to the American Library Association, is one of the most challenged and banned novels in American public and school libraries and classrooms, often on the grounds that someone (a parent, a school board, a school administrator) “contend(s) that its racially and sexually charged themes are inappropriate for young readers.”
What is our relationship with “To Kill A Mockingbird?” As the phrase goes: it’s complex.
It is not surprising that, in the era of Black Lives Matter and what seems to be a resurrection of overt racism, a theatrical team has decided to bring a new version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” to the stage. Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation sets out to incorporate a more contemporary perspective on the events of the play, one which puts less stress on understanding the feelings of racists, and more on the persistence of racism in modern times. The emphasis is on the ugly, and, in this version, Atticus is forced to call into question his faith in the basic goodness of his racist neighbors.
This production is a rousing theatrical success. The large ensemble is made up of actors from all over America. This may be a Broadway tour, but the talent of America’s regional theatre is pumping through its veins and that is quite wonderful to see. The art of great acting in America is certainly not concentrated entirely in New York; it blossoms everywhere and it is a pleasure to see so many actors from so many different regions working together in this fine ensemble.
Richard Thomas, as Atticus Finch, is superb. Thomas is known as an actors’ actor whose theatrical career is legendary. A theatrical lifer, he made his Broadway debut at the ripe old age of seven and won a major Emmy Award when he was a teenager. And that was just the opener for a long and distinguished career. Thomas is an actor utterly at home on the stage, as if he were performing in the family living room after Thanksgiving dinner.
The rest of the cast rises to Thomas’s high standards. There are a lot of actors on the stage, and they work together beautifully, each alive and glowing. The children are played by adults who know how children think, talk, and move—so much so that you are likely to forget that they are adults, as the performance unfolds. Melanie Moore is a wonderful, enthusiastic Scout. Justin Mark sharply delineates her older brother Jem. Steven Elrod is good enough to astonish as Dill Harris, the strikingly sensitive and intelligent summer visitor. The character of Dill was famously inspired by Harper Lee’s lifelong friendship with Truman Capote. Elrod captures the kind of sensitivity that a child might have if he is going to become a great writer. The subtle emotions he displays as he relates to, very specifically, Scout, Jem, and Atticus are the work of a remarkable and powerfully capable actor.
There are many fine performances in this large cast. Worth calling out are Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia, and Jeff Still as Link Deas. Calpurnia is the Finch family housekeeper, whose role extends to helping Atticus raise his motherless children. Playwright Sorkin builds up this character so that she challenges Atticus to question his own attitudes towards his racist neighbors. Link Deas is another character developed beyond the original by Sorkin. Deas has good reason to despise his neighbors and little inclination to give them any benefit of the doubt. Jeff Still brings him to vivid life with a short but memorable and highly effective turn on the witness stand.
Lastly, I should mention the appearance of Mary Badham in a small role as Mrs. Henry Dubose. Mary Badham was Scout in the film and won an academy award for her performance. Since then, she has not pursued a career as an actress, but the professional skills she demonstrated as a child remain intact. She is excellent.
The many Americans who love the book and the film will love this play. Those who have doubts about the effectiveness of “To Kill A Mockingbird” as a key text for racial justice will be at least somewhat reassured by Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent updating of the script.
This is an excellent production that will make vivid theatrical memories, and provoke important and challenging conversations.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” runs at the Golden Gate Theater through October 9, 2022. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird,” a new play by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee. Original Music by Adam Guettel. Director: Bartlett Sher. Scenic Designer: Miriam Buether. Costume Designer: Ann Roth. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer.
Scout Finch: Melanie Moore. Jem Finch: Justin Mark. Dell Harris: Steven Lee Johnson. Bailiff: Stephen Elrod. Tom Robinson: Yaegel T. Welch. Horace Gilmer: Luke Smith. Sheriff Heck Tate: David Christopher Wells. Bob Ewell: Joey Collins. Mayella Ewell: Arianna Gayle Stucki. Calpurnia: Jacqueline Williams. Atticus Finch: Richard Thomas. Judge Taylor: Richard Poe. Mr. Roscoe :Greg Wood. Mr. Cunningham: Travis Johns. Miss Stephanie: Liv Rooth. Mrs. Henry Dubose: Mary Badham. Link Deas: Jeff Still. Dill’s Mother: Liv Booth. Dr. Reynolds: Greg Wood. Boo Bradley: Travis Johns. Ensemble: Morgan Bernhard, Denise Cormier, Hollis Duggans-Queenss, Christopher R. Ellis, Stephen Elrod, Glenn Fleary, Maeve Moynihan, Geoffrey Allen Murphy, Daniel Neale, Dorcas Sowunmi, Greg Wood.