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Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Kennedy Center

To Kill a Mockingbird is bold, bracing, and probing theatre!

Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Kennedy Center
L-Richard Thomas and Melanie Moore in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Harper Lee's classic book To Kill A Mockingbird has a legion of fans and so does the 1962 film but it would be best to forget the source material and simply savor the theatricality of the play To Kill A Mockingbird now playing at the Kennedy Center. Playwright Aaron Sorkin has written a stage adaptation that succeeds beautifully on its own terms. Though this successful Broadway play still carries the literary merits of the beloved book, a bit of the southern gothic feel has been peeled away. There is still a stress on the growing pains of two children growing up in the town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1934 but there is an emphasis on social justice and tolerance that seems expanded from the source material. The characters have a moral complexity that allows each of the characters the opportunity for more of a realistic portrayal of the human condition in all its complexity.

Under the direction of the Tony award-winning Bartlett Sher, the play explores the contradictions of living a life of good conscience in a world where the heart's needs and the rule of law collide. In this innovative play, this conflict plays out by several technical choices. The opening scene is in a courtroom and the scenes switch back and forth from the courtroom to the Finch's home in a non-linear fashion to show the vast difference between the rigid rule of law and the warmth of home.

There is a breaking down of the fourth wall in several important moments such as daughter Scout narrating the proceedings and Atticus addressing the audience as if it was a courtroom. This approach gains the complicity of the audience but could occasionally veer into a preachy or messaging tone. It is tremendously difficult to adapt all the delicacy of the novel, so the theme of lost innocence was diminished with the sometimes-jarring alternating tones of this stage adaptation. The central theme of it is a sin "to kill a mockingbird" because it only sings to please-------is well brought out to include the entire human race.

The character of lawyer and father Atticus Finch (actor Richard Thomas) can be unbelievably noble but here he is fleshed out as a man who can lose his temper if pushed too far. He is portrayed as a man who is fighting the conditions of his time with a combination of realism as well as idealism. This more humanized portrait of Atticus makes him much more relatable.

The talented Richard Thomas further fleshes out his character with qualities of comic understatement, earthiness, and patient tenacity. Thomas's long speech where he pleads and entreats the court to look at the face of justice (in the trial of Tom Robinson) is a master class in acting and brought applause from the audience (rare in a dramatic play). Thomas's scenes with housekeeper Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) were invigoratingly bracing and his scenes with his children are tenderly portrayed.

The character of the daughter Scout is played with a precocious verve and sassy attitude to entertaining effect by Melanie Moore.

Justin Mark delivered a clear and direct interpretation of son Jem Finch.

As the character of Dill Harris (based on the young Truman Capote), Steven Lee Johnson delivered an endearing and fey interpretation.

Travis Johns sensitively played the character of Boo Radley.

Though played to searing perfection, the scabrous Bob Ewell(Joey Collins) and his intimidated daughter Mayella (Arianna Gayle Stucki) are not written with the same roundness as the other members of the cast and seem to be more emblematic of caricature personified. This creates the necessary emotion to show the ugliness of racism, but it would be even more powerful if it were brought out more gradually.

Yaegel T. Welch as the innocently accused Tom Robinson delivered a poignant and dignified performance that conveyed his fighting for the respect every person is entitled to.

Sheriff Heck Tate (David Christopher Wells) and Judge Taylor (Richard Poe) lend able and solid support as symbols of the law in a southern town.

Mary Badham (the original Scout in the famous 1962 film) portrays the haughty Mrs. Henry Dubose with quick timing.

The theme of prejudice and racism is no longer a theme, but a radical visceral reality and it is the touchstone of this play's writing. The character of Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) has been enlarged to the advantage of the play as it gives the opportunity for commentary on the oppressive racial, social and class constraints. Ms. Williams is exceptional in all her scenes and especially in the scene where she learns of the death of Tom Robinson (her chest heaves with weariness and despair ---a stage choice I will not soon forget --).

The ending of the play has a mesmerizing eschatological bent --as the dead Tom Robinson appears with Atticus in his house. All the characters appear ---whether dead or alive- (as in the ending to the musical Les Misérables and the ending to the film Places in the Heart) and it is an incredibly moving moment.

It occurred to me that a re-looking at this play in a more intimate venue could bear appraisal as the Opera House space seemed a tad too large for such an intimate piece of material (perhaps the scenery demanded it?). I also do not know if it was due to the sound system, fast patter of the speech or the thickness of the accents but many lines could not be deciphered from some of the supporting actors; this problem pushed into audience etiquette as two couples conversed in street level voice asking each other what was being said throughout the evening. (Audience members rudely acting as if they were in their own living room continued as two people opened their cell phones to compose texts during the performance and the woman seated next to me munched and grabbed at crunchy snacks out of her pocketbook for most of the evening).

Scenic design by Tony-award-winning Miriam Buether is logistically savvy as the immense grey walls of the courtroom innovatively convert into the Atticus Finch home; it drops from the top of the stage with ease and facility. A tree for the yard and the lighting fixtures for the courtroom also drop from overhead to eye-catching effect.

Lighting by Tony award-winning Jennifer Tipton was superlatively managed.

Costumes by Tony award-winning Ann Roth fit the mood of this piece beautifully. Vests, ties, and jackets were appropriate, and dresses were tailored beautifully. Scout's appearance as a ham (to personify the agricultural products farmed and sold in Maycomb) was delightful.

Original Score by the esteemed composer Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) was evocative.

This production has an ambitious feel akin to the musical Sweeney Todd and the play War Horse -the audience is required to do some intelligent listening and interpretation. Audiences will respond in a positive way to this play because of its timeliness and its sheer professionalism.

Adventurous theatregoers will be rewarded with theatre that challenges conventional expectations. "All Rise!" as we are exhorted in the play-- To Kill a Mockingbird is bold, bracing, and probing theatre!

Running Time: Two Hours and thirty -five minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission.

To Kill A Mockingbird runs through July 10, 2022 at the Kennedy Center located at 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20566.

From This Author - David Friscic

David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college.  He is thrilled to... (read more about this author)

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Harper Lee’s classic book To Kill A Mockingbird has a legion of fans and so does the 1962 film but it would be best to forget the source material and simply savor the theatricality of the play To Kill A Mockingbird now playing at the Kennedy Center.  Playwright Aaron Sorkin has written a stage adaptation that succeeds beautifully on its own terms.