Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite some initial misgivings from Harper Lee's estate, mostly about how Sorkin wanted to slightly alter the character of Atticus Finch (having him both occasionally swear and drink), the play generally follows the arc of the novel, although its structure has been revised to better suit the needs of the story for the stage.
The changes in place will be noticeable to those with a deep familiarity with the book, but even diehard fans may welcome the dramatic flourishes and minor character modifications that help the story resonate more completely with a modern audience. Racism, sadly, is still far too ever-present in America, and the changes–for example, allowing the Finches' cook Calpurnia (played with almost regal stoicism by Jacqueline Williams) to speak with Atticus on a more equal footing–mainly serve to remind us of this unfortunate fact.
Sorkin cranks up the focus on racism by bringing the character of Bob Ewell more to the fore. If you haven't read the book or seen the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) is the alcoholic, ne'er-do-well father of Mayella Ewell (played here by Arianna Gayle Stucki with the demeanor of a dog that has been whipped into submission), the girl who accuses Tom Robinson of rape. Sorkin presents Ewell with an almost Hitler-esque level of vitriol. With his nostrils twitching like a rat, a small, grimy mustache and a lock of thin, black hair falling over his forehead, he even somewhat resembles the dictator (who was at the height of his power when this story is set). The resemblance becomes even more pronounced when he launches into one of several white power rants: "Isn't the survival of your race something worth fighting for?" he screams at Atticus, and the N-word is, to borrow from the Bard, as familiar in his mouth as household words.
Ewell also raises issues that will be familiar to anyone who has been paying any attention to the growing influence the most recent former president has had on the conservative base voter: "Intellectuals have been taking advantage of us our whole lives," Ewell hollers at one point during Tom Robinson's trial. Ewell leads a gang of KKK members in an attempt to lynch Tom Robinson even before his trial begins. They show up at the jail wearing ragged hoods–something Sorkin added that was not in Lee's book.
Despite changes of this sort (others were nixed by the Lee estate), Sorkin has written a brilliant script. Just as in the novel, the young Scout (played by Melanie Moore), Atticus's daughter, serves as our narrator. She, along with her older brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson) seem to float through the play, observing and commenting on scenes, often even when they are not actually in those scenes. It's a fabulous narrative trick, and it helps keep Sorkin's script driving forward. Even at more than two-and-a-half hours, the production never lags, thanks to Sorkin's mastery at dramatic structure, and the humor he wrings our of Lee's original text and his own additions.
The acting here is superb. Jeff Daniels played the role of Atticus Finch on Broadway, but Richard Thomas is perhaps even better suited for the role. Atticus is a gentle, even delicate man, and Thomas's lanky frame and his carriage seem far more in tune than Daniels's relative bulk. His line readings feel perfectly in line with the gentility of the character, and his measured delivery both enhances the tension of some scenes, and wrings hearty laughs from others.
Melanie Moore's Scout will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film, with her pageboy haircut and denim overalls. Her Scout feels exactly like the character I read on the page all those years ago: smart and sassy, yet respectful and kind. Scout ages from six to nine over the course of the play; though Moore is 31, her portrayal allows us to believe she is such a young girl. Steven Lee Johnson is a marvelous Dill, playing the role with a sense of intellect and an outsider's wariness. The character was purported to be based on Harper Lee's lifelong friend Truman Capote, and one can imagine the precocious Capote being a wide-eyed smarty pants as a boy, just as Dill can be.
In Miriam Buether's capacious set, the action shifts smoothly between the Finches' porch, what seems like a dilapidated cotton warehouse with broken windows in rusted frames, and the Maycomb courthouse where Tom Robinson's trial takes place. It's during that trial that much of the most moving drama takes place. It's also where the phrase "All rise" takes on a special meaning: more than simply a request to show respect for the judge and the law he represents, it's but a sort of clarion call to the people of Maycomb–and to the audience–to rise, in a metaphorical sense, to find a way to move beyond petty, senseless prejudices toward a more just world.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through October 9, 2022, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256. For tickets and information, call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com/tour/.