A towering achievement, To Kill A Mockingbird comforts with nostalgic charm and crackles with potent relevance, the deft combination of which makes for an unforgettable night at the theatre.
With a creative team, cast size, budget and theatre more in line with that of a major musical, the new play has all the hallmarks of a Major Event, a tag it lives up to in abundance.
At the heart of the play’s success is the ingenious concept and dazzling wordplay of playwright Aaron Sorkin. Knowing that actual children couldn’t play the massive lead roles of Jem and Scout Finch and Dill Harris, Sorkin has fashioned the work as a memory play, with young adult actors taking their characters on a non-linear journey through the events before, during and after the courtroom trial of Tom Robinson.
Miriam Buether’s rustic, representative set dissolves in and out as the “kids” jump back and forth between dramatic developments in the trial and key moments in the lead up to the court proceedings. Ann Roth’s costumes have a naturalistic earthiness, adding to the authentic feel of small town Alabama. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting completes the picture of a long hot 1934 summer.
The atmosphere is further enhanced by brooding, abstract music, composed by Adam Guettel and played by musicians Kimberley Grigsby (pump organ) and Allen Tedder (guitar) who remain on stage for the entire show.
Under the expert direction of Bartlett Sher the characters shimmer with life, with Sorkin’s retelling generating suspense even for those who are familiar with the classic Harper Lee novel. The adult actors bring energetic verve to the children while avoiding cloying sweetness. Gentle humour eases the audience into the world of Maycomb, Alabama. With the audience completely engaged with the characters and their plight, the final, highly moving sequence of scenes land with powerful weight.
Sorkin takes his time introducing the colourful characters of the town, such as blackhearted battle-axe Mrs Henry Dubose and town drunk Link Deas, all the while teasing out the mystery of legendary local terror Boo Radley. A scene involving the Ku Klux Klan strikes real fear, the horror thankfully diffused due to the innocent intervention of children.
The miscarriage of justice that blights the life of well meaning African American labourer Tom Robinson is partly balanced by the increased role of longterm Finch maid Calpurnia. Although Atticus and Calpurnia are described by Scout as usually behaving like brother and sister, an uneasy air of resentment hangs between during the trial, with Atticus mansplaining that Calpurnia has been exhibiting passive aggressive behaviour. After the trial, the pair have it out, giving voice to an African American reaction to the tragic situation.
Jeff Daniels gives a masterful performance as Atticus Finch, remaining in command and yet deftly underplaying just enough to bring the audience towards him. Daniels’ Atticus is world weary and wise, quick to love and slow to anger.
Celia Keenan-Bolger could not be more adorable as plucky tomboy Scout Finch, her voice ringing out with sincerity and hard won wisdom. Will Pullen conveys the tension of a boy on the cusp of being a man in a world where childhood is far safer. Gideon Glick brings a quirky style to Dill Harris, the resolution of his arc bringing many a tear to the eye.
Gbenga Akinnagbe brings a calm, centred presence to Tom Robinson, portraying a man who is afraid and yet accepting of his likely fate. LaTanya Richardson Jackson conveys the warm beating heart of Calpurnia, and imbues her reactions with the spirit of generations of oppressed people.
The message of To Kill A Mockingbird is all the more effective given the delivery by such an entertaining and superbly produced play. The bigotry and injustice portrayed on stage seem unimaginable, the only way forward in our shared humanity being to strive to do the right thing. As Scout implores, we must “all rise.”
To Kill A Mockingbird was reviewed 8pm Friday 11 January 2019 at Shubert Theatre, New York.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes