WEDNESDAY, Oct. 4 — Who is Atticus Finch, really? The roadshow production of Aaron Sorkin’s play “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened at the Wharton Center last night, dares to offer a compelling reinterpretation at some odds with his heroic portrayal in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel and the memorable film adaptation two years later.
The earlier Finch was all wise and knowing and completely comfortable with himself, while still short of self-righteous. As readers and moviegoers, we saw him through the reverential eyes of Scout, his 9-year-old daughter. He was a graceful, erudite man who was consummately played in the movie by Hollywood star Gregory Peck, the epitome of tall, dark and handsome.
Finch comes down to earth in the hands of Richard Thomas. He is short, grey and has a paunch — all of which adds to his compelling performance of Finch as a well-meaning but naïve white attorney who accepts the thankless challenge of defending a Negro, as he would put it. Thomas’ performance soundly delivers Sorkin’s insight into Finch as one so blinded by his misplaced faith in humanity that he cannot recognize reality. In the end, Finch bears responsibility for trading the life of a young man for the lesser evil of a prison sentence. Even then, he can only blame his client for not being patient enough to wait for an almost-certain-to-be meaningless appeal.
Though the two-act play runs some three hours, it must still sacrifice some of the book’s story, which the movie faithfully captured. It opens with the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man who pays with his life for daring to feel sorry for a white woman in racist small-town Alabama in the Depression-era 1930s.
As the trial builds toward its tragic but inevitable climax, Sorkin weaves in enough of the novel’s high points that aficionados should not be disappointed. Best among them is the jailhouse scene, when Finch stands guard alone at night over his client after correctly anticipating the arrival of a lynch mob. The moment is perhaps the most electric of the evening as hooded, armed assailants listen as Bob Ewell (Ted Koch), father of the young woman that Robinson is falsely accused of raping, details how they will literally skin Robinson as a lesson to anyone else of color who dares to smell the perfume of a white woman.
The play does some justice to the coming-of-age story of Scout (Maeve Moynihan), her brother, Jem (Justin Mark), and their summer playmate Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). It’s disconcerting to see these college graduates as children, though, especially in their scenes with Thomas, who is barely taller than two of them and shorter than one. Scout’s appearance is reminiscent of how the busting-out physical maturity of Judy Garland had to be literally constrained in “The Wizard of Oz.” Still, all turn in convincing performances, with Johnson particularly delightful as the character that Lee based on her childhood friend who grew up to be the writer Truman Capote.
One criticism of Lee’s novel is that it is outdated today in how it deals with race. (On the other side, the novel was banned in some places for being too progressive.) While the play, like the book — and like last night’s audience — is still mostly populated by white people, Sorkin does broaden the role of Calpurnia, the Finches’ Black housekeeper, in order to express what badly needs to be said, which is that Atticus’ expressed respect for anyone, no matter how evil, is disrespectful to her and the town’s Black citizens. As Calpurnia, veteran Chicago actress Jacqueline Williams turns in a moving performance.
Williams is part of a stellar cast of supporting performers who keep a long production from dragging. Other standouts include Koch as the villainous Bob Ewell and Mariah Lee as his daughter, Mayella, who though a victim cannot find the courage to tell the truth. The ultimate victim, of course, is Tom Robinson, ably played by Yaegel T. Welch, who in his final moment on the witness stand lets loose the rage and honesty that seals his character’s fate.
One performance of note for historical purposes is that of Mary Badham, who 61 years ago co-starred as Scout in the movie and now is on tour as the racist old Mrs. Dubose, one of the Finches’ more colorful neighbors. Badham’s performance — and almost everyone’s — suffered from a sound problem that plagued the opening-night production, drawing complaints in the theater as well as online today. Sorkin is known for his crisp dialogue, but it lost some of its punch from being muffled off and on throughout the night.
While Boo Radley does make an appearance — lest you think Sorkin has left out one of the story’s central themes — it is the trial that is uppermost. And it is symbolic that while it is a trial by jury, there are no jurors on stage, but rather just an empty box where we are left to imagine them. For then — and still too often now — justice was illusory in matters of race.
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