Here’s a comparative review of the classic play on Broadway. Yes, I did watch it LIVE. Oh, Jeff Daniels!
The Lyle Michael Review
Guilty. The fate of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a 25-year-old African American “negro” unjustly accused of the rape of a white woman is sealed by an all-white jury. It’s the 1930s and the effects of the civil war are raging in the one-horse fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The premise is as timely as it is timeless – this Rolling Stone review makes a valid point.
Aaron Sorkin’s adapted script is given form by Bartlett Sher’s direction to present “To Kill a Mockingbird” on stage. This is not “To Kill a Mockingbird” – the Harper Lee classic of 1960 or “To Kill a Mockingbird” – the Gregory-Peck owned 1962 film. As Peter Travers says in his criticism here, this play is its own. For the record, this is the second consecutive time Travers has been my choice of critics for these assignments, but when the shoe fits!
Observations such as the relevance of the play in today’s turbulent present, read racially charged scenario, and its fealty to the past resonate with my experience of this play. This is one novel that I can return to after years and find its grip as strong in today’s context. For those seeking an “interpretation” this will not play to that gallery. The two-and-a-half-hour long play does not deviate from the novel yet offers variations in timely humour and a few liberties which attest to Sorkin’s inimitable craft. And Sher’s tenacity.
Take for starters, Atticus Finch. He is brought to life in an unhurried, inimitable style by Jeff Daniels, and it’s true, he is not the hero in his daughter’s eyes anymore but a mere man standing up for justice. Sorkin’s Finch is empathetic, a notion that adds significant layers to this iconic character.
As this review points out, right in the subtitle, that black characters are given a voice in this version. You see Robinson meet Atticus Finch for the first time and they interact. Then there’s beloved “negro” nanny Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Cal, the longtime family maid, who is seen airing her opinions in sibling-like conversations with her “master” with one such noteworthy reply to a comment on “…joy cometh in the morning” being, “Well, mornin’s sure takin’ its sweet time to get here.”
The play reveals additional modifications to take note of such as a shift in the structure of the novel’s narrative. The opening scene of the courtroom is Sorkin taking risks, which the review does reference when it shows the difference between author (Lee) and Sorkin (playwright) in telling the same story. There are sprinklings of modifiers that sugarcoat this play without any reason to whatsoever. “All rise for the miracle…,” “theatrical fireworks,” “Daniels best-ever…” are instances.
Another essential detail highlighted is the amplification of characters in this adaptation with adults – Celia Keenan-Bolger and Will Pullen – enacting the Finch children Scout and Jem respectively. In my opinion, Bolger’s performance is efficacy to the tee. Along with Daniels, hers is the stage while Erin Wilhelmi carries Maya Ewell (alleged rape victim) on her frail, young shoulders with authority in her hateful and falsified testimony against Robinson.
One could argue – and Travers could have alluded to it here – that Sorkin should have written a new play altogether instead of this myriad of modernisations probably intended to tear away from antiquity but would it have still been “To Kill a Mockingbird?” My guess is not.
This critical piece was written in Jan 2019, for a film review class for the Goldring Arts Journalism Program, at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University.