Regional Reviews: Phoenix
To Kill a Mockingbird
The story is set in a fictional small town in Alabama and centers on the impact that a Black man accused of raping a white woman has on the people who live there, especially the lawyer Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, who has been accused of beating and raping a young, white, local townswoman. The trial envelops the small town and forces Atticus to confront angry townspeople while seeking to find the truth in the case and trying to impart important lessons to his children.
The play features many of the memorable moments from the book and film, though some things that are easier to portray on screen aren't quite able to be captured on stage. Unlike the book and film, Sorkin's adaptation begins almost immediately at the trial, which gets right into the meat of the plot, and uses flashbacks to flesh out the events that led up to the trial. It also shifts the focus somewhat so it isn't solely centered on Scout and also doesn't have a grown-up version of that character narrating the piece, as the prior theatrical adaptation did. Instead, Sorkin has all three of the children in the story (Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill) serve as the shared narrators. He also presents Atticus as slightly more flawed than the book and makes him the show's focus. While purists of the novel and film may balk at these fairly significant changes, the message of racial intolerance and the life lessons that Scout and her brother Jem learn from the aftermath of the trial still resonate today.
A wonderful cast has been assembled for this national tour, which includes Richard Thomas as Atticus. Sorkin's slight changes to Atticus turn what was a fairly unshowy character into one with slightly more layers and range. Thomas does an excellent job in showing the kind, truthful, honest and likeable character while also depicting how the trial changes Atticus.
While the talented trio of young adult actors who play Scout, Jem, and Dill are far older than the prepubescent and young teenage characters they play, they all do wonderful work in bringing these three memorable young characters vibrantly alive. Melanie Moore is exceptional in depicting the childlike innocence and inquisitive nature of Scout. Justin Mark and Steven Lee Johnson are wonderful and rambunctious as the sure of himself and somewhat short-tempered Jem and the smart and talkative Dill, respectively.
Jacqueline Williams is exquisite as the Finch housekeeper Calpurnia, a fierce and forceful woman who says a lot with only a few words. Sorkin also expanded this role from the book and Williams does an excellent job in what is now the play's conscience and voice of reason. Yaegel T. Welch is appropriately soft spoken and continually polite as Tom Robinson, who always tries to do the right thing but finds himself accused for something he didn't do. His testimony is heartbreaking and wrenching.
Joey Collins is excellent as the main antagonist in the play, Bob Ewell, the father of Mayella, who claims Tom raped her. Collins' combination of violent rage and agitated nature as the racist Ewell are like a ticking bomb always on the edge of exploding. Arianna Gayle Stucki is equally good as the flustered and fractured Mayella. Richard Poe is warm and amiable as the compassionate Judge Taylor, and Luke Smith is appropriately slimy as the prosecutor in the case. Mary Badham, who played the part of Scout in the 1962 film adaptation of the novel, shines in the cameo role of the Finch's racist neighbor, Mrs. Dubose. David Christopher Wells is charming as the local sheriff, and Jeff Still is impressive and gets to deliver one of the best lines in the play, as the man who Robinson works for.
While Bartlett Sher has made a name for himself for his direction of several large-scale Broadway revivals of the past decade–the tour of his production of Fiddler on the Roof was just in town this past weekend–he also has many credits for directing plays, and his work here is simply beautiful. He ensures his cast deliver truthful, realistic, and emotionally rich portrayals and his staging makes exceptional use of the excellent set design by Miriam Buether. The costumes by Ann Roth and the hair and wig designs by Campbell Young Associates are period and character appropriate. The lighting design by Jennifer Tipton delivers rich stage images, especially those set at night. Scott Lehrer's sound design ensures the dialogue is clear, which is something not always the case for tours that play at Gammage. There is also a folksy underscore written by Broadway composer Adam Guettel that adds a nice atmospheric touch to the story.
Just like Lee's beloved novel, the theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is moving and a powerful and unfortunate reminder that the racial prejudice that existed when the novel was first published still exists over 60 years later. But the message of hope is still firmly present as the play calls out to all of us to rise up and bravely stand up against racism as the fight for justice continues on.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through December 11, 2022, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit http://www.asugammage.com/ or by calling 480 965-3434. Information for future dates for this tour can be found at https://tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com/tour/
Written: Aaron Sorkin and based on the novel: Harper Lee