Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis

A timeless tale turned into a moving night of theatre!

By: Aug. 17, 2022
Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD  at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis

It's the 1930s in Alabama. A black man sits on trial for raping a white woman. A white laywer defends him in front of a courtroom full of white Jurors. The show preaches racial injustices, poverty, and is a coming-of-age tale. You likely know the story. It's Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

The 1960 novel won a Pulitzer Prize and is widely read in schools, used to teach history, and today, is still known as a classic piece of American literature. The story follows Scout, who is the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a white laywer who is determined to save a black man from the electric chair. Set in 1930's Alabama, Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman and faces a predjudiced town who is convinced of his guilt. It is a moving tale and is still very prevelant today with the message "who deserves respect".

The To Kill a Mockingbird you will see on stage varies from the book you know so well. In some ways, these changes are welcome. However, Aaron Sorkin, the award-winning playwright who adapted Mockingbird for the stage, faced some challenges in the beginning. During development, the show was involved in two legal disputes, one from the Harper Lee estate itself. They argued over the changes from the book, such as Atticus Finch becoming the protagonist rather than his daughter Scout. Eventually, an agreement was reached and and the lawsuit was settled. Another dispute emerged involving the licensed productions of the Christopher Sergel adaptation. Sorkin argued that his production had nothing to do with former productions, and the lawsuits were settled. Mockingbird opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre on December 13, 2018 with Jeff Daniels in the role as Atticus and Celia Kennan-Bolger as Scout. The play was a fresh take on the beloved novel and portrayed Atticus as a bit naive rather than the flawless character we know from the book. The show also highlights the children, Scout, Jem, and Dill, and gives them all bits of narrative. Though the book involves some very weighty material, the play shines a little humor and hope admidst the dark situations.

Melanie Moore, Justin Mark, and Steven Lee Johnson portray the three children, Scout, Jem, and Dill with the child-like fascinations we see in Scout as we read the book. It makes the tale a little more fun as we experience these moments through a child's eyes. A particularly powerful moment involving Dill (potrayed by Johnson's talented understudy, Daniel Neale) in the courtoom comes to mind, when after the prosecutor goes after Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) in a heinous way, Dill breaks down in tears. This leads to an incredibly moving moment with the children and Anthony Natale, who portrays the deaf character Link Deas. This was one of my favorite changes from the book. Sorkin has combined several characters into one, making Link Deas, who is known as the town drunk, a misunderstood white man who has lost his family- his colored wife and his mixed son. Natale signs his lines while the children interpret his words and it makes for a very powerful moment.

Some audience favorites are the interactions between Atticus, portrayed by Richard Thomas and his domestic helper, Calpurnia, played by Jacqueline Williams. In the play, Atticus doesn't seem to understand the injustices that Calpurnia and Tom Robinson face and Calpurnia's "passive agressiveness" and anger about how Atticus is teaching his children how to face the world, with respect for everyone, give a very telling performance. The play does not shy away from the weighty material and I heard plenty of gasps and outraged outbursts from the audience, particularly at the appearance of the KKK and the racist remarks made by Bob Ewell and Mayella Ewell, portayed by Joey Collins and Arianna Gayle Stucki. I have to commend these two on their performances and personally congratulate them on making me hate them. It is an extremely hard thing to do, standing on stage and facing the audience when you know you are despised. I had a similar moment, when I portrayed a racist Juror during a production of 12 Angry Jurors during my college days. I stood in the middle of the room and spewed hateful and frankly, disgusting words, and heard boos and jeers from the audience. I even got spit on during a quiet moment in the show. It means I did my job well. An actor's job is to make you feel and both of these actors make one's blood boil when they shout such injustices.

Richard Thomas definitely steals the show as Atticus, showing a powerful yet gentle man and father. However, unlike the book, we are shown a different side of Atticus including watching him snap and attack Bob Ewell after the trial. Though we as an audience can understand his actions, it is interesting to see these changes up close.

The set is just as interesting as the action that is occuring on stage. Actors are responsible for moving various set pieces around, quickly transporting us to different locations before ultimately returning to the court room. The costumes and lighting also lend itself to a powerful yet simple setting. Nothing flashy. Afterall, this is Alabama in a very dark time in America's history.

The Orpheum does not get many plays so that in itself is a treat. We as an audience are used to flashy musicals and show-stopping numbers. Mockingbird is no less moving and makes for a very poignant night of theatre.

My last call out is to a very special appearance in the show. Mary Badham, who portrays the racist old Mrs. Dubose, may be recognized by many. She actually portrayed the role of Scout in the film production of Mockingbird and was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. At the time, she was the youngest person nominated for an Oscar. Her performance is chilling and does a wonderful job sparking rage as she drives Jem to destroy her beloved camellia bush.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs until August 21st and is not to be missed! Get your tickets today.


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