Review: HARPER LEE'S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Commands 'ALL Rise' At Straz Center For The Performing Arts


By: Apr. 12, 2023
Review: HARPER LEE'S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Commands 'ALL Rise' At Straz Center For The Performing Arts
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"Before you judge someone, it's a good idea to get inside their skin and crawl around a little while..." -Atticus Finch

"We have to heal this wound, or we will never stop bleeding..."

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin and opened on Broadway at the Schubert Theatre in December of 2018. The play is set in 1930s Alabama and follows the story of Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer in his defense trial of Tom Robinson, an African American man wrongfully accused of rape. However, Sorkin's adaptation differs from the book by Lee, in which we see Atticus as the protagonist here, unlike the portrayal of Scout in Lee's novel. Witnessing Atticus as the protagonist of the story we go on an emotional journey, and are able to see the change in Atticus as the show progresses. As Sorkin developed his adaptation, the production was faced with its own legal disputes. One being with the Lee estate in regards to its faithfulness to the original narrative, and the other to exclusivity rights regarding the use of the script by Christopher Sergel.

The play opened with Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus Finch, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout Finch. The play began previews on November 1, 2018, and officially opened at the Schubert on December 13, 2018. On March 12, 2020, the play and all of Broadway suspended operations/performances as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The show resumed performances 0n October 5, 2021, with the original cast returning. On January 12, 2022, the show announced it would play its final performance at the Schubert on January 16th, and later reopen at the Belasco on June 1st. Greg Kinnear was set to succeed Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus Finch. However, on July 29, 2022, the show announced it would not reopen due to an uncertain climate regarding plays during the approaching winter season.

Though the production received numerous reviews following its opening at the Schubert, it was not without its fair share of legal controversy. In March of 2018, the Lee estate alleged that Sorkin's adaptation violated the terms of their agreement by centralizing its story around Atticus as the main character, unlike his daughter Scout in the original novel. Through heated debate and a counter-suit of 10 million dollars, by Sorkin's lawyers, the show premiered following the settling between both parties involved.

For our purposes, and the purposes of the Tour stop, Richard Thomas is at the helm of our story as the protagonist Atticus Finch. Richard Thomas known for his famed "John Boy" on the Waltons, is unmistakably perfect for the role here. Tender when he needs to be, and staunch and reticent in moments of pure triumph, Richard was destined to play this role.

For me this is where Sorkin's adaptation works its best magic, in moments where the audience very much becomes a "fly on the wall," to the events of the story. It takes the most pressing moments of the story, the most exciting moments and thrust the audience head-first into its center. It is a welcomed change with the story in narration by the children Scout and Jem, respectively, and through its inner-workings, we see the evolution of the great man living within Atticus himself. Sorkin's adaptation bookends seamlessly, by opening with a mention of Bob Ewell "falling on his knife," and closing with the same recognizance.

There is mention of "Boo Radley" multiple times prior to the plays interval, but we don't see him until just before the play's final moments. I also thoroughly enjoy the kids being played by adult performers. There is something more inherently genuine in its telling by not thrusting child performers onstage in the roles of the kids. In a way its through their narration that almost delivers like a memory of their lives centered around the trial of Tom Robinson.

As Scout Finch, Melanie Moore is enigmatic, and lightning through and through. From her first moments onstage till final curtain all eyes are on her. She sets the scene, and gracefully brings the evening's events to a close. At times her dialect can be difficult to understand, and I'm unsure if it was the levels in the mics, so pay close attention, for you do not want to miss a single word. Hands down a stellar performance from Melanie.

As Jem Finch, Justin Mark is top-notch. He portrays the brother role perfectly. Protective in nature and full of heart. His moments with Melanie's Scout are beautifully staged, and watching them you would almost swear they were related in real life.

As Dill Harris, Steven Lee Johnson is the right amount of aloof, and the perfect comedic timing opposite the tense moments in the play. There is a moment in the second half between Dill and Atticus that is so heartwarming, your emotions will just swell.

As Tom Robinson, Yaegel T. Welch is sheer brilliance. His performance is mesmerizing even in moments of silence. Spending most of the show silent is no easy task, but his moment on the witness stand is so captivating. You feel for his plight, and pray the jury does too.

Jaqueline Williams' Calpurnia is as no-nonsense as they come. Nothing gets by her, and she is often times the glue holding the house together. Her comedic moments really shine, but as the voice of reason is where her true depth lies. Reminiscent of Viola Davis, Jaqueline Williams commands the stage in every moment.

As Bob Ewell, Joey Collins plays the villain everyone loves to hate. He's seedy and underhanded and downright miserable. His moments with the Klan are sheer fear- inducing, and all too real.

David Manis as Judge Taylor provides some comedic relief in tense moments. He runs the court with the sharpest of hands, and lets nothing stand in his way.

Special mention goes to Mary Badham, who in fact is reliving the events of To Kill a Mockingbird some 60 years later. Mary steps into the role of the racist-bigoted neighbor Mrs. Henry Dubose. You see Mary, was the original Scout Finch in the film opposite the great Gregory Peck. It is wonderful to see her onstage and in this element so many years following the release of the film.

The rest of the Ensemble making up the company of Mockingbird shall not go unnoticed for their work as one cohesive unit shook me to the core even the very next day. Searing images into my mind that I will no sooner be able to erase, nor would ever want to. Stephen Elrod, Luke Smith, David Christopher Wells, Arianna Gayle Stucki, Greg Wood, Travis Johns, Liv Rooth, Jeff Still, Morgan Bernhard, Denise Cormier, Hollis Duggans- Queenss, Christopher R. Ellis, Maeve Moynihan, Daniel Neale, Andre Ozim, and Dorcas Sowunmi, all deserve special mention for their work supercedes expectations, and as I sit here writing this I think about how much I wish to see this again.

With Direction by Bartlett Sher, Scenic Design by Miriam Buether , Costumes by Ann Roth, Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton, Sound Design by Scott Lehrer, and Hair/Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates, the Artistic minds create a marvelous, and cohesive unit that moves as one entity, and for a moment in time allows us as the audience to truly be transported.

All spoilers aside, there are a few moments of tension that border on frightening even in today's climate. The moment with the Klan and the guns, gets slightly unnerving especially when the performers turn and the guns are pointed at the audience. Whether that was a haphazard moment, or Direction it makes for an uncomfortable situation even in a large hall such as this.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is an essential story in the English lexicon and pivotal to the education of not only our youth but society as a whole. In today's political climate where banned-books and legislation about what our kids should and should not be taught, I stand here and say How Dare They!! Harper Lee's quintessential novel should never be banned, but taught, and discussed, read and re-read for years to come.

Aaron Sorkin's blistering adaptation of one of the finest books of literature does what Hamilton has done for U.S. History, it takes events that happened back then and places them into our present worldview, and helps to expand the horizons of not only those who've come before, but will continually affect those who come after us.

Spark social change, ignite the conservation, ignite the human spirt, and in the end ALL RISE!

If not now, when, if not us, then who?

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is onstage at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, April 16th. You would be doing yourself an extreme disservice to miss out on this truly powerful, moving, searing, and visceral work of art. At a time when its story, its lessons, and at its core, its humanity is needed now more than ever!

Visit for tickets.

" A sin to kill a mockingbird...a crime against God..."

"Smaller armies have changed the world..."



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