by Brian Scott Lipton
For 57 years, Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” has not only been required reading for most schoolchildren, but the book is still being devoured daily by people of all ages. If it could run forever, the same fate might befall Aaron Sorkin’s thoroughly engrossing, exquisitely acted and quasi-faithful theatrical version, now debuting at the Shubert Theatre under Bartlett Sher’s pitch-perfect direction. Its unhappy tale of racial prejudice, while set in 1934, seems eerily prescient in modern-day America, as does its focus on a single widower doing the best to raise his two children amidst poverty and ignorance.
That man is Atticus Finch (superbly embodied by Jeff Daniels), who in the apt words of his daughter Scout (a simply stunning Celia Keenan-Bolger) is “the most honest and decent man in Maycomb, Alabama.” He’s a country lawyer who respects everyone, even making “explanations” for those who don’t deserve it, and whose innate sense of decency and morality lead him to defend Tom Robinson (the excellent Gbenga Akinnagbe), a local black man wrongly accused of raping the unhappy 19-year-old daughter (a strangely moving Erin Wilhelmi) of the bigoted KKK member Bob Ewell (a terrifying Frederick Weller).
Giving Robinson full voice and three dimensions is one of the big changes Sorkin has made from the book, along with fleshing out the Finch’s longtime black maid Calpurnia (the invaluable LaTanya Richardson Jackson), who speaks her mind freely to Atticus, and who is said to have an almost sisterly relationship to her white employer. Their exchanges are not typical of the time, to be sure, but there’s nothing to say it couldn’t have happened.
Sorkin’s other major reworking of the novel is that Scout, her much older brother Jem (a solid Will Pullen) and lively friend Dill (an endearing Gideon Glick), a sensitive Louisiana boy who visits for the summer, act as adult narrators of the plot, while also being their young characters. The idea feels occasionally clumsy; but at best, the device allows Sorkin to provide some easy exposition. (And learning that Scout turns out to have followed in her father’s legal footsteps is rather gratifying.)
In smaller ways, Sorkin has also tampered a little with the character of Atticus, who is both heroic and, ultimately, human. By the show’s end, he finally realizes that honesty isn’t always the best policy and that, perhaps, not everyone is worthy of equal treatment. Of course, it takes a near-tragedy for him to change his ways — along with some cajoling from the local sheriff (a fine Danny McCarthy) and the feisty Judge Taylor (a priceless Dakin Matthews).
Few directors handle large ensembles as well as Sher, and every role, big and small, is executed here with finesse, thanks to a sterling cast that also include Stark Sands, Jeff Still, Neal Huff, Phyllis Sommerville, Liv Rooth and Danny Wolohan. Kudos belong, as well, to Kimberly Grigsby and Allan Tedder, who sit on the sides of Miriam Buether’s spare yet evocative set, playing era-appropriate music by Tony Award winner Adam Guettel.
But it’s Sorkin’s and Lee’s words (some of the text comes directly from the book) that make the sweetest music onstage, reminding us of the challenges of doing the right thing even in the toughest of circumstances. To do otherwise, like killing a mockingbird, would be a sin. As would be missing this sublime show.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
*Review first appeared in Cititour on December 13th
Shubert Theater – 225 West 44th Street, NYC Running Time: 2 hrs, 35 min. www.shuberttheatreny.com