Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, tolerance and decency. Celia Keenan-Bolger, best remembered for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” but grown up now, is smart, funny, and entirely convincing as Scout, Atticus’s precocious 6-year-old daughter and the narrator of the story. The rest of the large and very fine cast perform their parts with all their hearts, under Sher’s impeccably fine-tuned direction.
“Mockingbird,” although beloved all over the world, has always been a headache. To be sure, it sold 50 million copies when it was published in 1960, won the most prestigious of literary prizes, inspired an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck, and is taught in countless school classrooms all over the country. Nonetheless, the novel is constantly under attack by religious, civic, and parents’ groups demanding that it be removed from school libraries and classroom curriculums.
For the most part, these protests have to do with Lee’s liberal and historically accurate use of “the n-word.” (Although it’s startling to hear the word used so often on a Broadway stage, the producers earn points for refusing to sanitize the script.) But broader issues of race and class also continue to fuel complaints.
Watching this show, more faithful than not to its source, you have to wonder what makes the material so incendiary. After all, Lee based her warm-hearted but wide-eyed bildungsroman on her own childhood growing up in the segregated Deep South during the Depression.
The designers have done a beautiful job of conjuring that era without smothering the narrative. The minimalist set by Miriam Buether is composed of largely wooden set pieces that function as mere suggestions of the little town of Maycomb, Alabama. (There are doors and windows, but no walls.) Ann Roth’s dowdy costumes capture the weary look of the clothes country people wore in the 1930s. And leave it to lighting designer Jennifer Tipton to warm everybody up by washing this drab town in tones of golden-brown.
The most solid setting is the porch where Atticus seems to deliver most of his folksy lessons to Scout, her older brother, Jem (Will Pullen, a nice actor playing a nice boy), and their goofy friend, Dill Harris (Gideon Glick, overdoing the goofiness), a character Lee based on her friend Truman Capote.
Kind and compassionate, but somehow rugged as a rock in Daniels’ solid performance, Atticus is determined to pass on to the children his own bedrock belief in the nobility of all human beings. “There’s fundamental goodness in all of us,” he says, urging them to be tolerant of others — all others.
That would include the lynch mob that shows up in raggedy Klan masks at one point to do Klan things. “But they’re still good people,” Atticus insists, after the children shame them into an undignified retreat. These days, it’s hard to hear that line, and that facile sentiment, without cringing.
There’s humor of a bitter kind in Sorkin’s script, especially when regaling us with Scout’s artless observations on her casually racist neighbors. Or treating us to the vision of Mrs. Henry Dubose (big cheer for Phyllis Somerville) sitting on her porch and yelling nasty insults (“You ugly little girl!”) at Scout. And there’s humor of a sweeter kind whenever Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, in her glory), Atticus’s black housekeeper, stares him down or gives Scout what-for. In another modest deviation from the novel, she’s allowed a flash of temper (and a contemporary sense of injustice) when a black man meets his death at the hands of a white mob.
The dark heart of the matter is exposed in the dramatic courtroom trial at which Atticus delivers an impassioned defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, the daughter of the town drunk. Both daughter and father are caricatures of Southern trash, but as played by Erin Wilhelmi and Frederick Weller, they eloquently project their own histories of poverty and abuse, of domestic violence bred by generations.
Tom Robinson (a powerhouse performance from Gbenga Akinnagbe), the accused man, is demonstrably innocent and Atticus proves it in court. In another modest diversion from the novel that shouldn’t rile anyone, but probably will, Robinson is even allowed an angry word in his own defense. Nonetheless, he is found guilty by the jury of racist white farmers, and after being dragged off to jail, dies under the most suspicious circumstances.
This appalling case of racial injustice destroys Scout’s innocence and shatters her father’s belief in the intrinsic goodness of man. And here, finally, we really can see how the play diverges from the novel.
This play belongs to Atticus Finch. He holds the stage and he wins our love. When he’s robbed of his faith in his fellow man, it’s hard to believe he’ll be able to go on. But Scout — the nightingale — is the heart of the book and although she’s lost her innocence, we know she’ll go on.