Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Ohio Theatre

Thomas the lynchpin in Sorkin’s updated version of Lee’s classic novel

By: Jun. 07, 2023
Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Ohio Theatre

When author Harper Lee first submitted TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to her publishers, editor Tay Hohoff said the book is "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." It is not surprising that even today, writers are finding new ways to convey the truth in the novel to new generations.

Aaron Sorkin, the playwright behind such classic movies as A FEW GOOD MEN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and MONEYBALL and the wunderkind behind television shows like WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT, is the latest to take a swing at the iconic novel. And, judging by its reception here in Columbus, Sorkin drives that attempt far into the centerfield seats.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which stars actor Richard Thomas (John Boy on THE WALTONS) as Atticus Finch, runs June 6-11 at the Ohio Theatre (39 E. State Street in downtown Columbus).

Navigating TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD can be a nightmare for English teachers and far worse for the students who have to read it. It is a dense, well-written forest but has many side paths that lead to the climactic trial showdown. Sorkin trims through that thicket and focuses on the trial.

Melanie Moore (who does a masterful job as Scout) opens the play with the line, “Some things here don’t make sense.” If you follow a strict interpretation of Lee’s epic, that’s very true.

Scout’s role is different here. In the novel, she is the primary narrator; in this play, she shares the storytelling duties with her brother Jem (Justin Mark) and Dill Harris (the hilarious Steven Lee Johnson).

There are other substantial changes as well. The cranky Mrs. Henry Dubose (played by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with Gregory Peck), and Boo Radley (Travis Johns), were central figures in the novel. Here they are painted into the background. Alexandria Hancock, Walter Cunningham, and Miss Maudie, all major players in the book, don’t make an appearance in Sorkin’s play.

Yet somehow, it works perfectly.

The lynchpin in this production is Thomas. He follows a long list of luminaries to play Atticus – Jeff Daniels, Greg Kinnear, and Ed Harris. Thomas looks like he’s a perfect fit for the genteel, Southern gentleman. He drolly dispenses the lawyer’s one-liners and fatherly wisdom as if he stepped out of the novel on to the stage.

The casting director made an interesting choice for Finch’s children and their friend Dill. In the book, Scout is listed as being between 6-9 years old, Jem is between 10-13, and Dill is 7. In the play, the three characters are played by actors who are well over 20. The casting choice gives that feeling of someone looking back at an event through the eyes of their younger self.

Jacqueline Williams, who plays Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia, adds another dimension to the performance. Feisty and funny, Calpurnia may wear an apron, but she is clearly the one in charge. She even stands up to Atticus occasionally and challenges his parenting (or lack thereof) of his kids. Yaegel T. Welch nails Tom Robinson as a victim who is entangled in someone else’s plot because of his kindness.

Unlike THE WALTONS, there are villains aplenty in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Joey Collins creates a loathsome, toxic cloud as Bob Ewell, the antagonistic racist who drives the plot. Arianna Gayle Stucki brings a complexity to Ewell’s daughter, Mayella. She paints her character as part victim, part culprit as she brings the false rape charges against Robinson. Luke Smith may have one of the more difficult roles as Ewell’s slimeball attorney, Horace Gilmer. Gilmer’s bigoted cross examination of Robinson is harder to stomach than Mr. Ewell’s diatribes because of his aristocratic demeanor for most of the trial.

Though it is set in the 1930s, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD remains as topical now as it did when it was first published. Unfortunately, racists are rarely as overt as Bob Ewell. They often wear the tainted smiles and three piece suits like Horace Gilmer.

The language may be different now than it was back then, but sadly the message is the same. Thomas delivers the most poignant line in the play, “We have to heal this wound, or we'll never stop bleeding."

Let us hope TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a part of the salve for that restoration to begin.


2023 Regional Awards


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