BWW Review: Jeff Daniels is Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin and Bartlett Sher's Exquisite Adaptation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Without knowing any better, one might easily mistake the new stage adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer-winning 1960 novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" for a revival of a classic Golden Age Broadway drama. So earnest in tone and full of plainspoken poetics is Aaron Sorkin's thoroughly engaging text. So old-school honest are the performances given by director Bartlett Sher's 24-member cast, beautifully framed with an eye toward rural artistry by designers Miriam Buether (sets), Ann Roth (costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lights).
But then come the jarring parallels to 2018 America that arise whenever those characters created over fifty years ago consider if it's possible for a black man in America accused of raping a young white girl can possibly be given a fair trial, even when that trial reveals there is no credible evidence against him.
Like director Ivo van Hove and playwright Lee Hall's new stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 screenplay for "Network," this is a theatre piece with a decades-old source written with the knowledge of the contemporary issues bound to enter audience members' minds as they watch a performance.
Americans were first exposed to Harper Lee's novel not long after reading Anne Frank's conviction that "people are really good at heart." Audiences are now seeing Aaron Sorkin's play not long after hearing the country's president state that in a conflict involving white supremacists, there were "very fine people on both sides."
So compared with Americans of the early 1960s, how much sympathy can we still muster for impoverished white people who claim their exclusionary actions are motivated by self-preservation rather than racism? Can we feel the pity the novel's first edition readers might have felt for a frightened girl convinced she has no choice but to falsely accuse a man of rape because of an abusive patriarchy that makes her feel she has no voice of her own?
And as Sorkin's adaptation proceeds, we see Lee's central figure, Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, played here with a fine, gentle nature by Jeff Daniels, ponder those same questions after being appointed to defend the accused Tom Robinson.
He receives valuable help in this version, as Sorkin gives the accused a stronger voice, played by Gbenga Akinnagbe with a weariness about the ways of the world that would go beyond the understanding of a white man of his age. And a firmer, blunter tone is given to the widowed Finch's black housekeeper Calpurnia (excellent LaTanya Richardson Jackson) who schools her employer in the way life really works.
While Finch leads by example when confronting the racism in his community, he also listens to these marginalized people. In contemporary terms, he becomes less of a heroic "white knight" and more of a respectful ally.
As in Lee's novel, the story is narrated by Finch's six-year-old daughter, nicknamed Scout. But instead of having a child play the role, it goes to the consistently brilliant Celia Keenan-Bolger, perhaps the most underappreciated stage actor working regularly in New York. Stiff and serious-minded, with a blunt honesty that plays humorously, Keenan-Bolger uses the slightest of physical and vocal variations to blend swiftly from child to adult. She is thoroughly believable and quite remarkable.
And then there's Frederick Weller, whose frighteningly realistic portrayal of Mayella's father, Bob Ewell, so convincingly conveys how some men allow their desperation and poverty to fuel a need to dominate vulnerable people like Tom Robinson and his own daughter in order to not feel like he's the one at the bottom. Sorkin's text and Weller's acting skills clearly paint a picture of a man who believes his actions are a justified response to the abuse he perceives he receives from the educated and accomplished. Individually, such men are merely ignorant and pathetic, but when united in numbers against someone labeled their enemy, they are dangerous.