Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Providence Performing Arts Center

On stage now through February 11th

By: Feb. 07, 2024
Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Providence Performing Arts Center
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Aaron Sorkin’s dramatic adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, pulls no punches, showing how racial injustice and the attitudes and issues related to it are all still relevant to the modern day. The 2018 play version fleshes out a story familiar to many, that of lawyer Atticus Finch’s legal defense of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of rape, in the Jim Crow south of the 1930s. However, what this incarnation of the story highlights so very well is that the problems of racism, unjust legal systems and class divides on broad display in the 1930s have actually been the forever problems that plague America, here at its founding, there at the trial of Tom Robinson in 1934, and still here today. And while times may have changed, and some progress has been made, it’s the attitudes of individual people who can either perpetuate these problems or try to make things better.

On the PPAC stage, Emmy Award winning actor Richard Thomas (from The Waltons) takes the lead as Atticus Finch. Thomas’ portrayal of Finch is as a man who tries to face the racial injustice everywhere around him with a fair-minded, kind approach that assumes everyone is inherently good on the inside, no matter how much hatred and violence those individuals might exhibit. But as the events of the story unfold, the audience watches his eyes begin to open as his naivety and belief in the goodness of everyone begins to fall away, a realization that Finch fights to the bitter end. Thomas’ impassioned delivery of Atticus’ courtroom monologue in defense of Robinson in the second act is one of the evening’s most outstanding moments, and yet it’s in the small moments that we see Thomas’ portrayal of a more complex character. One who is adamantly opposed to racism, but who allows hate filled neighbors to throw racial slurs about and threaten murder unchallenged, excusing them as being “old,” having fallen on hard times, or being drunk. Thomas’ portrayal of Finch is at its most complex in these moments, and the audience is left to ponder how a man who has good intentions and a belief in justice, can brush off so much hatred around him as good folks just having a bad day.

Meanwhile, Tom Robinson, played by Yaegel T. Welch, gives a stirring performance, particularly during his final turn on the witness stand in the second act in which he must issue a perfectly rehearsed statement, requiring timidity, meekness, and deflection alongside the truth of the main incident, all to appease the all-white jury. However, in one final moment of frustration during that defense, he issues an unwelcome truth, that he felt sorry for his accuser, a sentiment the jury cannot accept from a man of his race and station. This serves as a microcosm of Welch’s portrayal of Robinson throughout the play, that of a black man who must exercise constant caution about where he goes, what he says, and with whom he interacts, hiding even concern for others behind deflection and timidity, lest he end up facing the wrong side of the law for a wrong word or glance.

Acting as the play’s narrators are the three children, portrayed by adult aged actors in this production: Jem Finch (Justin Mark), his tomboyish younger sister Scout Finch (a spunky Scout Backus), and their friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson). Through their eyes, they often question and confront the events around them, illuminating hypocrisies and contradictions loudly and boldly as children often do, and thus framing the superficial rules of the Jim Crow world they live in and its unfair constructs to both the adults in the play and sometimes directly to the audience.

Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the Finch’s Black housekeeper, is given a larger role in Sorkin’s play, and is not afraid to challenge Atticus’ actions or words that are often unintentionally ignorant. Williams tackles this role with much gravitas and deftly delivers some of the best dialogue in the show. When Atticus, remarks that his children shouldn’t have to live in fear right where they live, Calpurnia doesn’t miss a beat before responding “Let me try hard to see if I can relate to that.” Another poignant moment between Finch and Calpurnia is when she finally explains that her long-term passive aggressive behavior toward Atticus was because one night he had uttered “you’re welcome" under his breath when Calpurnia didn’t show adequate adulation to his statement that he’d taken up the defense of Tom Robinson. It’s here that we see clearly that while Atticus often takes the right public action, in his daily life and internal thoughts, he still looks down upon, or perhaps even feels paternalistic, toward African Americans, snatching away their agency to feel whatever way they want to about the issues the effect them daily. Their relationship helps illustrate that Atticus is very much not a “white savior” in this production, but just a man, “take him for all and all.”

There is not a weak link in the entire supporting cast, and special mention must be given to several actors who have the especial challenge of portraying the more despicable citizens of Macomb. Ted Koch digs into the role of the despicable Bob Ewell, with Mariah Lee as his daughter, Mayella Ewell. It cannot be easy to play characters without a single redeeming quality night in and night out, but their portrayal of the Ewells is critical for the story, and each plays their role with frankness and guile.

In an era where projected sets are so often the norm, it was refreshing to have practical set pieces (designed by Miriam Buether). These are rolled on and off to form various locations, from the courtroom to both the front porch and various rooms within the Finchs’ house.

With thrilling performances and messages that are all too relevant to modern times, this production of To Kill a Mockingbird is an important play that should be seen by all.

To Kill a Mockingbird will play the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, February 11th, 2024 as part of Taco and the White Foundation Broadway Series. For tickets, visit the PPAC Box Office at 220 Weybosset St. in downtown Providence, go online at ppacri.org, or call 401.421.ARTS (2787).

Pictured (L-R): Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

 




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