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Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Brings a Reimaged Classic to the San Diego Civic Theatre

Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Brings a Reimaged Classic to the San Diego Civic Theatre

Playing through December 4th.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD from Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bartlett Sher offers a reimagined framing of the classic novel and movie. The excellent cast, including Richard Thomas as Atticus, brings a moving, confident, and powerful story to the stage about a time gone by with issues that feel as relevant as ever. To Kill a Mockingbird from Broadway San Diego is playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre through December 4th.

The classic story remains the same, but the restructuring of it is noticeable from the start when the three children of the piece Scout (Melanie Moore), Jem (Justin Mark), and Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) -who are all played by adults in this- introduce the key players of the trial. It is a memory play, as told by all three kids who act as both narrators and participants, weaving the story of their summer and the trial together smoothly.

Richard Thomas as Atticus is educated, genial, and believes in the power of the truth and the American judicial system. He believes that the people of Maycomb as essentially good and in a court of law those same people will act on facts and truth instead of prejudice. As should be expected from an Aaron Sorkin adaption there are plenty of impassioned speeches on right and wrong, and quippy one-liners that Thomas delivers with easy credibility. Equally as powerful is that this Attaicus has flaws and blindspots and is more human than the oft-remembered paragon lawyer from the movie.

Other effective changes are that the accused Tom (Yaegel T. Welch) and Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) the maid in the Finch home are both given more agency and fire than the characters are originally drawn.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Yaegel T. Welch, foreground, as Tom Robinson and Rochard Thomas, left, as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Welch gives powerful testimony as Tom who is literally fighting for his life. He has empathy, dignity, and a keen understanding of his circumstances. His testimony of the events of that day builds suspense with the audience along with Atticus, who worries how the jury will react to this tale.

Williams' Calpurnia is not afraid to voice her anger and frustration directly to Atticus. She delivers him a set down and challenges his idea of being polite and respectful to everyone and "It don't matter who you disrespect by doing it" to audience applause.

Having Scout, Jem, and Dill played adults is a bit of a risk but it does allow for much more nuanced portrayals of the absolute surety of emotion; right, wrong, fear and everything in between that can only be felt as a child. Moore as Scout is sweet and too smart for her own good, while Mark as Jem is winning as a character navigating the difficulties at an age that is no longer a child but isn't just yet a man. Johnson as Dill brings a lot of humor and sensitivity as the sweet and talkative neighbor.

The play is most vibrant during the trial, where the prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Luke Smith) shows barely hidden prejudices, while the vile Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) shouts them out loud. Mayella Ewell ( Jacqueline Williams) is both a victim who cowers and then switches into vehement vitriol that echoes her father. All of which is calmly, and competently challenged by Thomas' Atticus.

While it's easy to think of the book and the movie as classics from the past, this reimaged play and staging directed by Bartlett Sher feel very modern day in the racist arguments, what constitutes justice, and the derision of the ideas of education and equality as intellectual elitism.

The set by scenic designer Miriam Buether allows for the Finch house and the courtroom to easily slide in and out between scenes. There is no doubt the witness stand in the courtroom is meant to look a bit like a rustic electric chair- as a reminder of what waits if the verdict is guilty.

With all of the changes the play makes, many of which were challenged by Harper Lee's estate before being allowed, it is disappointing that with all of the powerful dialogue Sorkin wrote challenging racism, more opportunities were not created for them to be said by the Black characters.

As I left the theatre I spoke with many audience members who told me that this book and movie are some of their favorites, many of who watch or re-read it on an annual basis. Adaptions can be tricky for these fans who know and love their versions, but everyone I spoke to loved this version which is a testament to the performers.

This version of To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't allow Atticus to be the perfect paragon of virtuousness, it complicates that memory by blurring those hard lines and making him more human. The story is better and more relatable for it. Politeness and respect only go so far, especially in the face of vigilante justice; the tolerance of monsters only allows them to continue to be monstrous.

How To Get Tickets

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD from Broadway San Diego is playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre through Sunday, December 4th. For ticket and show time information go to www.broadwaysd.com

Photo credit: Justin Mark, left, Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore, and Steven Lee Johnson in To Kill a Mockingbird - photo Courtesy of Julieta Cervante



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