In its first appearance on Broadway “To Kill A Mockingbird” reminds us of why Harper Lee’s searing 1960 novel and the unforgettable 1962 film fueled important discussions about race in schools and theaters across the country. The powerful story seems all the more relevant in 2019. While the story of small-town racial injustice is firmly rooted to a time and place distant from us, the overarching themes of racial justice seem “ripped from the headlines,” as “Law And Order” used to pronounce. An African American man is wrongly arrested and brutalized by a system unwilling to examine the merits of his case. If Tom Robinson, the man wrongfully accused of sexual battery, happened today, there would be protests, marches, non-stop cable news coverage and football players taking a knee. In 1934, when the story takes place, the events are considered unremarkable by the local folks, But 85 years later, they not only spark our indignation; they also trigger our recognition that the judicial system is still full of holes.
There was a great deal of controversy when it was announced that Broadway would feature the first authorized stage production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Others have chronicled the sad, isolated last years and death of Harper Lee but it is clear that late in her life, Ms. Lee was not making her own choices. When producer Scott Rudin bought the Broadway rights to the novel (which still sells 750,000 copies a year, the Lee estate contractually insisted that few changes appear to the story or characters. Rudin agreed but insisted that changes were justified. In an interview, he said he “can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. “The world has changed since then.”
Aaron Sorkin, the great screenwriter of “The West Wing,” “The American President,” The Newsroom,” and “A Few Good Men” set about the daunting task of telling the original story while making sure it seems fresh and relevant today.
He succeeded. Brilliantly.
Jeff Daniels, playing Atticus Finch, is a more realistic, less imposing and self-assured man than the Gregory Peck portrayal. This Atticus is a naif, blindly believing the white townspeople would do right, ignoring the depth and steadfastness of Southern racism. It takes nearly the entire play for him to realize what is really going on. Like many white Americans today see the killing of unarmed African American men to be only distantly related to their lives, so does Atticus wildly underestimate the deep hurt caused by the racism that surrounds him. Despite threats to Tom, to his family and himself, Atticus brushes them off as aberrations rather than recognizing them as reality. Sorkin’s script leads us to examine the tried-and-true beliefs of Atticus Finch deeply, Traditionally, we nod our heads sagely when Atticus tells his children, ” You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It sounds good; it sounds right. However, Atticus seems not to know the hearts of the townspeople nor does he really know either of the major African American characters.
Atticus is in love with the law and with the philosophy that “right makes right.” On Broadway “To Kill A Mockingbird” makes us question his non-violence. We wonder whether he is right to defend his principles with high-minded nostrums and misguided belief in the law is really admirable. In Sorkin’s deft hands, Calpurnia (the maid) and Jem become much more modern characters. They see what Atticus does not. They recognize that evil exists and that it must be opposed. They are realistic. When the all-white juror convicts the innocent man in 37 minutes, Atticus tells Calpurnia that the jurors had become madmen, She corrects him. “They were madmen before they walked into the courthouse. When they left the courthouse, they were murderers.
Having realized that children could not tell the story, Sorkin cleverly and effectively has the story told by Scout, Jem, and Dill as adults remembering and walking through their childhood memories. This brilliant device makes us identify with them, rather than Atticus. We are hearing their stories of him. This change upset some critics. Sorkin explained, “You can’t just wrap the original in Bubble Wrap and move it as gently as you can to the stage. It’s blasphemous to say it, but at some point, I have to take over.”
Director Bartlett Sher keeps the plot moving in numerous vu=isually interesting ways that connote an earlier time and yet incorporate Aaron Sorkin’s modern storytelling devices. By the end of the evening, the audience is exhausted by the emotional release of the drama.
In 2019, hate crimes are on the rise, self-identified Nazis march in the streets of Minneapolis and Charlottesville, and the racial divide in America seems as stark as it was in 1960 when the novel was published. Just as Atticus has to try and rationalize the racism of the “good white people” of town to his children, so today must parents explain why the President Of The United States says there were “many fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist march in Virginia. On Broadway “ToKill A Mockingbird packs a haymaker of a punch. However, its not just about 1934 or 1960. It is about today.