I’ve been late in getting to review “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but as it turned out the night I went proved to be special, apart from the play itself. Before the show began, the audience suddenly erupted in loud and prolonged cheering, and a great burst of applause. Surprise: Hillary and Bill Clinton had arrived and were being shown to their seats. The extra enthusiastic ovation seemed to have a defiant edge, as if in counterpoint to Trump's decree of his phony national emergency that very morning.
Lo and behold the Clintons were seated right behind my wife and me. Hillary smiled at us and also nodded to a few people she recognized. And one woman leaned toward Bill to say how much meeting him in Israel had meant. Bill congenially exchanged words with us and at intermission he chatted about the play with me and noted how well he thought it was being staged. The ever-vigilant secret servicemen on duty insisted on quickly hustling them out speedily at the play’s end, although I got the impression they would have liked to have applauded longer.
When the play began, I had trouble adjusting at first to the southern accents, and also, the staging by Bartlett Sher seemed awfully busy flitting back and forth between the courtroom and other venues. But eventually I adjusted to that too. Putting Harper Lee’s long popular novel on stage was a challenge to writer Aaron Sorkin, given the narrative and character demands. But I am happy to report that his writing has succeeded admirably in capturing the essence of Lee’s work with strong dramatic impact.
Jeff Daniels builds a mighty performance as lawyer Atticus Finch in the racist town of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1934. Celia Keenan-Bolger is effective playing a child in her role as Scout Finch, Atticus’ daughter, whose narration provides perspective and whose performance in the actual events adds spice. Will Pullen is also excellent as Atticus’ son Jem, a central role illuminating Atticus’ determination to pass along his concepts about decency in life.
The drama becomes most intense during the trial when Gbenga Akinnagbe as wrongly accused Tom Robinson takes the stand in defense against a rape charge. Akinnagbe is terrific in his attempt to honestly describe what happened pertaining to his accuser, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi). It is the dramatic highpoint in the case as Atticus elicits the unvarnished truth from his client. But Robinson makes a serious mistake of honestly saying he felt sorry for Mayella. A black man in that culture is not allowed to look superior by feeling sorry for a white woman.
However, in Lee’s narrative, little makes any difference. The all white jury is primed to find Robinson guilty no matter what and there is the inevitable death penalty. But racists are eager to murder Robinson before waiting for legalities.
Sorkin has taken certain liberties, such as building up the role of the Finch housekeeper Calpurnia, played dynamically by Latanya Richardson Jackson. It has been argued that a black housekeeper would not be so outspoken at the time and place in which the play was set. However, the writing and acting makes her role seem logical and truthful and it gives the play added insight and power for our time.
Scenic designer Miriam Buether has done a first-rate job in providing the necessary settings to encompass the breadth of Lee’s story in the transfer to the stage. Sher succeeds in getting the right tones in the progression of events, and a large supporting cast in roles large and small contributes expressively to building the necessary atmosphere to express the results of racism and efforts to combat it. The occasional humor injected via the writing and acting is appropriate, and the various plot threads are woven smoothly.
The overall result is that Lee’s durable novel is flourishing in a new venue and promises to have a well-deserved long run. Daniels makes the most of his extraordinary role and certainly is an awards candidate. At the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed February 16, 2019.