Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Bass Concert Hall

If there remains any question about the power of live theatre to impact lives, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD answers it with a resounding yes.

By: May. 12, 2023
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Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Bass Concert Hall

If there remains any question about the power of live theatre to impact lives, To Kill a Mockingbird answers it with a resounding yes. I realize this is a powerful twenty-four words with which to start a review, and I could end it here, too, but I am obliged to defend my opinion. I'll do my best.

The beauty of theatre is its capacity to sweep us up in a collective story, and in this case, it's a story that's a part of our ethos. A part of the English curriculum for most 9th or 10th graders for many decades, there's a deep fondness and memory of To Kill a Mockingbird that helped us see that, as Atticus Finch says in the play (and the film, and the novel) "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Novelist Harper Lee's character of Atticus Finch, has been one of the most beloved characters in American literature for over fifty years. The film adaptation of the novel was nominated for eight Academy Awards and the book is a Pulitzer prize winner.

In this To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee's Scout still tells the story, but she's joined by Jem and Dill, all three played by adults who step into the story as children. While not a concept playwright Aaron Sorkin considered when he wrote the script, this device became a part of it at an initial reading. It's so skillfully incorporated into the play, one would think it came with the first draft. Instead of Scout as the protagonist here, Sorkin discovered that in order to keep this version from seeming like a "Harper Lee cover band" story, and to make the story relevant to a contemporary audience, he'd have to cast a wider net.

And he does. To Kill a Mockingbird is still a story told by white people about the struggle of black people, but in Sorkin's version, black people are given a voice. Chiefly, we hear from the accused, Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) and Finch's maid, Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams). Tom's trial takes center stage right away both figuratively and literally. Sorkin gives voice to Tom and Calpurnia, but they are not the only voices prone to struggle in this thick and rich version. Jem (Justin Mark) struggles with his father's passivity. He's the frustrated voice of those of us who seek justice with our hands and feet, and sometimes, our fists. Scout (a committed and intense Melanie Moore) struggles to solve the mystery of Bob's (Joey Collins) death, and her father's complicity in it. Dill (Morgan Bernhard) struggles with his own family secrets.

I heard "that was so good," and "wow," repeatedly from the crowd as I left the show. And with unequivocal good reason. A top notch production team has built a perfect context around a cast that is brilliant and inspiring. Thomas is skilled at bringing a depth to Finch that keeps him delicately perched in a place of naive (because we know how this ends) optimism and delusional thinking about his "good" neighbors. Moore, Mark, and Bernhard as Scout, Jem, and Dill, are a captivating modern day Greek chorus that weaves in and out of the past and present with a seamless intensity. I shudder to think how this device will go in future years in the hands of community theatre actors and directors with less skill than this ensemble and their director Bartlett Sher. As Tom, Yaegel T. Welch projects a painful restraint inside a huge and powerful body in a representation of all he can't say or do. My heart and admiration is with him as he must relive the pain of the black body in every performance. Jacqueline Williams as Cal is solid and loving as Finch's honest challenger. Providing a good amount of levity where needed, David Manis's Judge Tayor is a delight. While these actors bring forth all the virtues we bestow upon them, I cannot give enough praise to those in the cast who must harness their courage, skill, and talent every night in the exhausting roles of Bob and Mayell Ewell. It is one thing to revel in the role of a villain who gets his due in the end, and entirely another to embody traumatic hate and abuse so convincingly. Joey Collins and Arianna Gayle Stucki, who play the difficult antagonists in this story, are deeply committed to these characters. Stucki in particular, whose short moments on the stand are utterly riveting, deserves high praise for an epic (and I do not use this word lightly) scene that stands out in a play of such superior talent.

The real conflict of this version of To Kill a Mockingbird lies in us. Sorkin hasn't so much changed the To Kill a Mockingbird we all know, but put his touch on the parts that remain so sadly important in 2023. Sorkin has noted that he wrote the play against a backdrop of Charlottesville and a president who claimed there were "very good people on both sides." He wasn't comparing Trump to Atticus Finch, but it gave the play new relevance. Sorkin said in a Boston Globe interview in March of last year, "Atticus is an apologist for nearly every racist character in that story. So I realized that I didn't have to create a flaw for Atticus, that he already had one."

How do we maintain our compassion for those who don't share our views and stand for something at the same time? When we enter into this conversation that is To Kill a Mockingbird through our contemporary eyes, what does this mean for us? What is ours to do?

"You got to give Maycomb time," Atticus tells Calpurnia in the play, "This is the Deep South. You got to give Maycomb time."

"Well, how much time would Maycomb like?" Calpurnia replies.

Here we are. Watching a play in 2023, about a novel written in 1960 about racism in 1935.

How much time would the United States like?

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

by Aaron Sorkin

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Bass Concert Hall

2350 Robert Dedman Austin, TX 78712

Remaining performances May 12-14.

Please be advised that this production contains racially explicit language & costuming, references of sexual abuse, and brief gunfire audio.




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