Broadway’s Timely, Necessary To Kill a Mockingbird Soars
by Tyler Genevay
Since its publication in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has captivated readers with its effortless poise, finely crafted details, and enduring messages of equity in an unjust world. Immediately commercially successful upon its release, the novel received numerous literary accolades, including the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and has been broadly incorporated into the curriculum of American schools. Known as a classic work of modern literature, To Kill a Mockingbird has been adapted into a movie, which premiered to acclaim in 1962, earning several Academy Award wins and nominations; Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch, the novel’s indefatigable and unflappable Southern gentleman, earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. To the millions of Americans that have read To Kill a Mockingbird in their classroom, in their book club, or in their spare time, the novel is a prime example of goodness and its many threats, and the kind of people desperately needed to defend it.
In 2016, Aaron Sorkin—the award-winning writer of The West Wing, The Social Network, and A Few Good Men, amongst other credits—announced his intention to adapt To Kill a Mockingbird into a Broadway play, and his work premiered with fanfare in 2018. The original cast starred Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, Celia Keenan-Bolger as his daughter, Scout, and Willen Pullen as her brother, Jem. Nominated for nine Tony Awards, the play was lauded for its carefully balanced approach to difficult subject matter, as well as its humor, acting, and heft. It was also a commercial success, and a new cast began performances on Broadway in the fall of 2019, continuing to open to sold-out crowds at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th.
While the novel is narrated by Scout, Sorkin’s adaptation also includes narrative turns from Jem and the sibling’s friend, Dill, who is visiting Maycomb, Alabama, for the summer. The three children open the play by discussing the events surrounding the death of Bob Ewell, which occurs at the end of the novel, and the first act is spent establishing what life was like during those sweltering, tense years. Through nonlinear flashbacks, the myriad of characters that occupy the bulk of the play are introduced, such as Judge John Taylor, Sherriff Heck Tate, the accused Tom Robinson, and the Finch’s housekeeper, Calpurnia, while the setting is illuminated: Depression-era Maycomb is riveted by Atticus Finch’s legal representation of Mr. Robinson, accused of raping Mayella Ewell.
The Broadway production, starring a brilliant Ed Harris as Atticus, differs from the original work—the exclusion of many of the novel’s secondary characters is notable for fans of the book—though it retains the biting social commentary, the enraging bigotry, the uphill fight for equality, the basic humanity of its protagonists, and the humor that enlivens an otherwise distressing tale. Nina Grollman’s Scout is played with her characteristic tomboy mentality and the uncorrupted vision of a child, rightly questioning how the white jury could ever convict a clearly innocent man merely because of the color of his skin. Along with Mr. Harris’ commanding yet subtle performance, Ms. Grollman’s carries the show with aplomb, and their bountiful father-daughter relationship is believable and reassuring. As Scout’s older brother Jem, Nick Robinson of Love, Simon fame is affable and quick, a sound foil for his younger sibling’s antics, and ferociously devoted to his family, particularly his father. Joined by Taylor Trensch’s hilarious, slightly slow but always well-meaning Dill, the three children and Atticus anchor a superb cast of thoughtful, resonant actors whose shares of the spotlight lift this ensemble cast and elevate their proud source material.
Although To Kill a Mockingbird was released 60 years ago, its enduring themes are as pressing today as they were when Harper Lee penned her only novel in the late 1950s. Certainly, the United States of America is a more equitable, just, and better nation than it was during the throes of the Jim Crow South—or, of course, than the fictional Maycomb is during the Great Depression. Yet, the country is currently roiled by societal, economic, and political upheaval, and it is an unsettling time when the loudest voices in the room prevail. The beauty of Scout Finch is that a child—with a vivid clarity uncorrupted by the evils of the world—can see injustice and identify it for what it is. Don’t allow the present turmoil fool you: There is no such moral equivalence; wrong is still wrong. Ed Harris’ Atticus Finch is just as engrossing, formidable, gentle, and robust as his literary counterpart, and his authoritative performance in this classic show commands that Americans heed the show’s closing line: “All rise.” Here, and now: rise to our national creed, rise to a more beautiful society, rise to our better angels, rise beyond the scrum. If you can, go see this brilliant show. If you can’t, get a copy of its equally brilliant source material: Both are goodness manifest.