Review: Sorkin's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Is An Update Fit for the New Banned-Books Era — Dr. Phillips Center

The three-hour runtime mostly flies by thanks to a first-rate cast and the words of Mr. "West Wing" himself...

By: Mar. 23, 2023
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Review: Sorkin's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Is An Update Fit for the New Banned-Books Era — Dr. Phillips Center
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Can you kill a mockingbird today without overkilling it? Sixty-three years after Harper Lee's iconic American novel released to instant controversy and enduring acclaim - nary a high schooler gets to cap or gown without an essay about it - this is the challenge confronting playwright Aaron Sorkin.

Worry not; this mockingbird has a new song to sing.

Unlike the novel, with its many chapters of seed sowing, Sorkin's version opens right in the middle of the action. The year is 1934, the place is an Alabama criminal court, and a respected lawyer named Atticus Finch is representing a Black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman, undeterred by the danger and scorn it means for himself and his two children, Scout and Jem.

The first act moves at breakneck speed and is absolutely riveting, a testament to just how compelling legal drama can be. Act Two is less able to conceal its length, bedeviled by the story's multiple endings and by narrative twists that were more surprising in Lee's time than they are today.

Speaking of bedevilments from Lee's time, there are baked-in elements that Sorkin just can't get away from, try as he might. To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about injustice to Black people, but it centers a white family, and it makes prolific use of racial slurs that aren't easy to hear, even if they are always clearly contextualized as villainous.

Aware of this, Sorkin creates new opportunity for the falsely accused, Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), to use his own voice, even if the character never fully occupies the focus of his own story.

Sorkin also rounds out the other principal Black character, family caretaker Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), who now nearly rivals Atticus himself as the story's moral guidepost. Williams's presence is fully felt in every scene. Her chastising Atticus for his failure to consider the Black perspective - for being too tolerant of the prejudice in his own backyard - makes this take on To Kill more than mere mimicry.

Powerful, too, is Atticus walking away from the courtroom to the edge of the stage during closing arguments, where he looks directly at the audience for an impassioned plea that we, society, must heal our racial wounds at last. It has the air of Sorkinist pandering, but like so much of his stuff, it works in spite of its obviousness.

The legendary screenwriter's famous "walk and talk" style translates to something like "narrate and stagehand" here, as Scout (Melanie Moore) casually slings whole set pieces around while addressing the audience directly in monologues that marry the energy of a whodunnit with the introspection of memoir. Moore is mesmerizing, her posture capturing both the urgency of injustice and the nonchalance of youth without any tension between the two. Her heavy southern dialect might be off-putting for more cynical audience members, but for me, it's worth the price of admission all on its own.

Moore is part of a top-notch touring cast that, incredibly, includes Mary Badham - the actress who at age 10 became the youngest person ever nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar when she played Scout in the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. (She plays an ailing old racist named Mrs. Henry Dubose here.) Joey Collins, too, makes a despicable character seem terrifyingly real as Bob Ewell, the Klansman father of Tom Robinson's accuser (played by Arianna Gayle Stucki in a rageful, understatedly empathetic performance).

Richard Thomas's Atticus is mild and affable, inspiring not only for Finch's trademark integrity but also because of the even-tempered warmth he brings to the role. His many interactions with the just Judge Taylor (David Manis) ring especially true. A lawyer myself, having practiced in the American South, I recognized in their performances the verisimilitude of that world. "I know these gentlemen," I thought. In less capable hands, both characters could easily skew toward caricature.

The acting's not all that wows. Miriam Buether's scenic design, adapted on tour by Edward Pierce, is exquisite - merely suggestive in detail but grand in scale, graywashed but bright and vibrant, and always on the move.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD arrives in Orlando at a time when books are being banned from schools all around America, and education about Black history is under attack right here in Florida. That makes this show, based on one of history's most famously and frequently banned books, all the more essential. But you need not look to moral obligation for incentive to see this play. It's the art of adaptation that's on trial, and Aaron Sorkin has scored another win.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD runs in Orlando through March 26, 2023. Tickets and season subscriptions are available from the Dr. Phillips Center box office.

What do you think of To Kill a Mockingbird on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photo: Richard Thomas ("Atticus Finch") and The Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. Phoot by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center and To Kill a Mockingbird; used with permission.


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