“To Kill a Mockingbird” – ★ ★ ★ ½
“We have to heal this wound or we’ll never stop bleeding.”
Atticus Finch, the standard-bearer of decency and tolerance Harper Lee introduced in her 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” utters that entreaty during his closing argument in defense of a falsely accused Black man in Aaron Sorkin’s re-imagined take on this beloved tale.
Sorkin’s riveting new adaptation premiered on Broadway in 2018 and commenced its national tour about two months ago.
The Chicago leg — starring Emmy Award-winner Richard Thomas as Atticus — opened Wednesday, days after what authorities described as a racially motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket.
Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas), left, defends Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), who has been wrongfully charged with sexually assaulting a white woman in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” running through May 29 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre. – Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
In the aftermath of that real-life tragedy, the words of this fictional character feel less like a warning than a confirmation that hatred so deeply entrenched may be impossible to stanch. Which certainly explains why this tale rooted in racial injustice, inequality and poverty resonates as powerfully today as it did upon its publication 62 years ago.
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Sorkin’s adaptation pricks the conscience. It tugs at the heartstrings. It also reflects a kind of naiveté and moral accommodation. Unfailingly honorable and demonstrably flawed, Atticus insists there is good in everyone, even the meanest bigot, if we care to look for it. You can’t know another person, he says, until you crawl around in his or her skin. Given the racial hatred the play depicts and the violence it inspires, Atticus’ position is one only a privileged white person could hold. Maybe that’s Sorkin’s point. There has to be another response. What that is remains to be seen.
Richard Thomas, second from left, plays Atticus Finch; Justin Mark, left, plays his son Jem; Melanie Moore, second from right, plays his daughter Scout; and Steven Lee Johnson plays their friend Dill in the national tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” – Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
That said, director Bartlett Sher’s production is lovely and engrossing. Nicely paced (with well-timed pauses that are nothing short of inspired) and lyrically staged, Sher’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has warmth and humor. There are moments in this production — Atticus and his children facing off against a lynch mob and Atticus’ final plea for his client’s life — that are spellbinding. What’s more, it boasts a superb cast that includes a cameo from Mary Badham, who played Scout opposite Gregory Peck’s Atticus in the 1962 film.
Like the novel, the action unfolds in the mid-1930s in a rural Alabama town where racism runs deep. Unlike the novel, Sorkin’s adaptation centers on widowed lawyer Atticus (a spot-on Thomas), not Scout (a whip-smart Melanie Moore), his young daughter whose coming-of-age Lee chronicled. The playwright also departs from the novel by having Scout share narration with her older brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their friend Dill (a sensitive, soulful Steven Lee Johnson). The youngsters are played — beautifully and convincingly — by adults, a clever duality that allows us to see the child experience life-altering events on which that child’s adult self reflects.
Goodman, Steppenwolf and Court Theatre veteran and Joseph Jefferson Award-winner Jacqueline Williams co-stars in the national tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” directed by Bartlett Sher. – Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
In another departure, Sorkin (who penned “A Few Good Men” — he knows his way around a courtroom drama) focuses the action mainly on the trial of Atticus’ client Tom Robinson (a quietly deliberate Yaegel T. Welch), an innocent Black man charged with sexually assaulting a white woman. He counters Atticus’ fervor by reminding him “I was guilty as soon as I was accused.”
Significantly, Sorkin expanded the roles of Tom and Calpurnia, Chicago favorite Jacqueline Williams, in a sharply etched performance as the family’s housekeeper and surrogate mother.
Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki), left, falsely claims that Tom Robinson, the Black man defended by Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas), center, sexually assaulted her in Bartlett Sher’s 2018 production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” now in its first national tour. – Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
Ariana Gayle Stucki impresses as sad-eyed, abused Mayella Ewell, who falsely claims Tom raped her. Stucki’s performance is a potent combination of fear, frustration and ferocity. Joey Collins is appropriately menacing in the overwritten role of Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, a murderous drunk and the play’s appallingly racist villain.
But it’s Thomas who anchors the show with a nicely complex performance that is by turns thoughtful, impassioned, deeply sensitive (his consolation of Johnson’s distraught Dill is among the production’s most moving moments) and prickly (as evidenced by his snappy exchanges with Williams’ Calpurnia). His Atticus is a flawed man. But at his core, he is a good man, a determined man convinced that it is possible to excise hatred, bind up those still festering wounds and make the nation healthy — for the first time.