The new stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, pairs two first-rate storytellers: Harper Lee, whose 1960 novel about racial injustice in 1930s Alabama became an instant classic, and Aaron Sorkin, whose gift for rat-a-tat dialogue, narrative restructuring and ripped-from-the-headlines plotting gets a full workout here.
Sorkin goes full Sorkin: jettisoning minor characters and plot threads, reordering scenes and dramatically altering familiar characters so that they have new, often unexpected resonance in President Donald Trump’s America. In fact, the creator of “A Few Good Men” and “The West Wing” has taken so many liberties with the text that a now-resolved lawsuit from Lee’s estate threatened to derail the production altogether.
The biggest point of departure is Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer and single dad whose moral rectitude was memorably embodied by Gregory Peck in the Oscar-winning 1962 film. Sorkin’s Atticus is not the untarnished paragon of virtue of the novel and film, but a more complicated character who owes much to the edgier Atticus depicted in Lee’s posthumously published novel “Go Set a Watchman,” which scholars regard as a rough draft for “Mockingbird.”
As embodied by Jeff Daniels, this Atticus is a well-educated Southern gentleman with a native intelligence but also a kind of aloof prickliness. He harbors some racist beliefs, verbally scraps with his African American maid and nanny, Calpurnia (the commanding LaTanya Richardson Jackson), and is not above physically tangling with Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the menacing local Klansman who threatens the Finch family when Atticus agrees to represent the black man (a soulful Gbenga Akinnagbe) whom Ewell has falsely accused of raping his daughter.
Unlike in the novel, the trial is drawn out over multiple scenes, allowing Sorkin to build some suspense, foreshadow themes of justice and fairness, and to pivot between the personal and the political while juggling more than a dozen characters. (The play’s structure also requires the large cast to awkwardly and repeatedly wheel pieces of Miriam Buether’s sparse and stylized courtroom set on and off the stage.)
Sorkin makes the most of presenting “Mockingbird” as a memory play, in the mold of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” with Atticus’ tomboy daughter, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), narrating with Sorkinian interruptions by her brother, Jem (Will Pullen), and their friend Dill Harris (Gideon Glick). It’s a risk to cast adult actors as young children, but here the gambit works — particularly since the sensational Keenan-Bolger and Glick capture the guilelessness of youth even as they register a dawning understanding of the adult world’s inequities and hypocrisies.
While purists may be driven to distraction by all the tweaks, Sorkin’s reworking of Lee’s plot frequently lets us cast a fresh eye on a familiar story we remember well from school. For instance, he plays up the novel’s underlying class issues: Most of the townsfolk in Maycomb, Alabama, are mistrustful of “so-called intellectuals” like Atticus whose efforts to be polite, by addressing Ewall’s daughter as Miss on the witness stand for instance, are dismissed as mocking condescension.
He also deploys Atticus’ familiar exhortation to try to understand other people’s perspectives — “to climb in his skin and walk around in it” — to challenge our modern red state vs. blue state divide, as well as the lengths to which we should extend tolerance to people whose views we disagree with, or even condemn.
When Calpurnia calls out Atticus for demanding that his kids respect n-word-dropping neighbors, he meekly replies, “I don’t want them hating people they disagree with.” While Calpurnia barely spoke in previous iterations of the story, Richardson-Jackson’s version is decidedly more woke. And faster than than you can say “there are very fine people on both sides,” she goads her boss to reconsider whether he really wants Scout and Jem to spend any time walking around in the skin of Klansmen.
Unfortunately, spotlighting the chinks in Atticus’ armor also diminishes the power of his closing argument at the trial, which here seems oddly more deflating that rousing. Even the late emergence of the mysterious and widely feared neighbor Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan) seems oddly anticlimactic. (In this telling, it is Scout who emerges as the conscience of the story — as well as its heart.)
Where Sorkin succeeds is in getting us to rethink an American classic without any fussiness or archness. And director Bartlett Sher, who’s best known for his Tony-winning work on big musicals like “South Pacific” and “My Fair Lady,” strikes the right balance between the epic and the intimate.
And he smartly mimics the breakneck pace of Sorkin’s film and TV projects, cramming Lee’s large and sprawling story into a production that runs just over two and a half hours but seems to just fly by. Despite its infelicities, this “Mockingbird” is crackerjack entertainment.