At the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel is a lyrical and tragic drama that should not be missed.
By John Lavitt
Hollywood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11-01-2022
Aaron Sorkin is a brave writer. Very few works of literature are as beloved as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and the job of a theatrical adaptation of the novel is a task that should only be taken on by a brave writer. Not only requiring bravery, but he also needed to be compassionate and caring, current, and classical, and critical and, once again, courageous. In his adaptation, adding a touch of humor and a sharp eye for storytelling, the Academy Award® winner (The Social Contract in 2010) succeeds on all levels in a manner that takes the brilliance of the original work to another level of excellence.
Directed by Tony® winner Bartlett Sher and produced by Broadway in Hollywood, “To Kill A Mockingbird” illuminates the hidden edges of a timeless classic while being 100% respectful and loving to the original. The best example of this respect is the casting across the board. Here are characters we loved as children; we knew what they looked like and how they sounded. After the success of the 1962 movie adaptation, starring a heroic Gregory Peck in an Academy Award® winning performance, it is challenging to cast these parts. Lesser actors would fumble around in such large shoes to fill.
However, in “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Pantages Theatre, the casting is immaculate. As the centerpiece of the cast, Emmy Award®-winning actor Richard Thomas (John-Boy from The Waltons) plays Atticus Finch. As the noble heart of the storyline, Atticus is a revered figure of good in American literary history. In the precision of this adaptation, which is non-linear in the storytelling, another side of Atticus is revealed. It has always been there but was a bit obscured by the linear nature of the novel. Sorkin reveals a tragic flaw that often proves to be the undoing of many a good man.
Indeed, Aaron Sorkin achieves a reckoning of Atticus Finch by revealing his blind spot. At his core, Atticus believes in the potential for goodness in each human being, and he possesses a strong faith in the belief that a valid argument backed by evidence will succeed in the end. However, what Atticus fails to see is that even when an individual is good, the mob is not. In the deep racism of the Jim Crow South, an argument about a black man did not matter if the case involved a white woman. In his valiant attempt to save Tom Robinson (a substantial Yaegel T. Welch in a painfully tragic role) from prison time, Atticus Finch dooms him to a violent death. The lawyer’s idealism is the fatal flaw.
As Atticus Finch, Richard Thomas gives a nuanced, powerful performance that makes you want to simultaneously hug and argue with him. He manages to inhabit a titanic role with comfort and familiarity. Unlike Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, Richard Thomas does not give the character a heroic air. Instead, he feels part and parcel of his local community: A folksy lawyer who is simply trying to do what he feels is right.
The excellent performances of his kids heighten the performance of Richard Thomas. As Scout Finch, Melanie Moore is emotionally on key at every performance point. Whether she’s storming off in frustration or searching for answers, she brings one of the greatest young heroines in American literature to life. As Jem Finch, Justin Mark helps to illuminate the frustratingly show transition into manhood that the teenage boy is experiencing. Perhaps Mark’s finest piece of acting is how much he truly feels like the son of Atticus and the brother of Scout. He is an essential element in this legendary literary family.
The last member of the family is Calpurnia, played by Jacqueline Williams, the African American cook, housekeeper, and nanny to the children. In the story, Calpurnia represents more than just a bridge between the white and black communities. She is a resonant voice of balance with a realistic understanding of the true nature of the Jim Crow South. She teaches Scout and Jem about their community and its challenges. Calpurnia also pokes holes in the idealism of Atticus by sticking to a brutal realism that is sad and undeniable. As Calpurnia, Jacqueline Williams is the true conscience of the play because she does not blink when faced with the brutal reality of the time. She cannot afford that indulgence.
In another stirring performance, Steven Lee Johnson brings new dimensions to the character of Dill Harris, the summer friend who has moved in down the street. Aaron Sorkin’s script fleshes out the sadness of Dill’s character and his desperate longing to be loved by a distant, uncaring mother and a forever absent father. Dill tells stories to soothe his inner pain, but these stories do not damage other people, even when revealed as lies. Instead, they make the other characters feel compassion for the lost boy, and there is a particularly moving scene between Dill and Atticus.
In contrast to the made-up stories of Dill, the made-up stories told by Mayella Ewell are incredibly destructive. As the traumatized, angry teen abused by her father and used like a throwaway toy by a racist social structure, Arianna Gayle Stucki is a tragic revelation. Her anger simmers to a boiling point in the courtroom scenes as she cries out to be understood and validated.
Even if she is lying, she feels like she deserves to be heard, and her lie has evolved into a twisted truth in her darkened soul. Indeed, Sorkin’s brutal representation of this broken girl allows Arianna Gayle Stucki to cry out in the shadows for a savior that we tragically know will never come. She is damned, and there is no hope for this girl. Watching her tears at your heart because you know she is responsible for Tom Robinson’s predicament, but you know just as well that she is as much a victim as anyone in the storyline.
As a final note, Mary Badham, who was Oscar®-nominated for the role of “Scout” in the 1962 feature film, plays the Finch’s elderly racist neighbor, Mrs. Dubose. She is a passionately angry presence in the role, and it’s a lovely tribute to the Robert Mulligan-directed film. By taking on this project, Aaron Sorkin and Bartlett Sher knew they were dealing with giants. They knew how beloved the Harper Lee novel is and how suspicious her fans would be of any adaptation. As a direct result, they pay homage to these legendary figures while truly carving out new territory of their own. To behold such a creative tribute to an iconic story is an experience not to be missed.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes