Saturday, December 1, 2018

To Kill a Mockingbird


I must confess that I thought it was a terrible idea to turn Harper Lee’s classic novel into a Broadway play starring Jeff Daniels (Blackbird, God of Carnage, “The Newsroom”). The film version is so indelibly lodged in people’s consciousness that it did not seem possible for a stage version to compete, even with a script by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, “The West Wing”). While I have admired much of Daniels’s work, he’s not Gregory Peck. My doubts grew when I heard that the roles of the three children would be played by adults, a practice I generally detest. I am happy to report that my qualms were mostly misplaced. While Sorkin’s script hews closely to the film in most respects (It’s been so long since I read it that I can’t comment on how closely it adheres to the novel), the changes he makes are mostly improvements. The roles of Calpurnia, Dill and the judge have been expanded, to good effect. A new character, the town drunk Link Deas (a touching Neal Huff; The Iceman Cometh), has been introduced, with his own tragic tale of the dire consequences of an interracial marriage. A few scenes from early in the film, such as Scout’s first day at school, have been left out without serious harm. Even allowing for the fact that the actors playing them are adults, the children seem a few years older than in the novel. This makes dramatic sense because the three, mainly Scout, narrate the story. The level of the acting is superb; even small roles have been cast with fine actors. Daniels is solid, but no match for my memory of Peck. Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie, A Parallelogram) is superb as Scout. Will Pullen (Sweat, Punk Rock) is fine as her brother Jem. LaTanya Richardson Jackson (A Raisin in the Sun) makes Calpurnia a good sparring partner for Atticus. Gideon Glick (Significant Other) is the wrong physical type for Dill (allegedly based on Truman Capote) but brings out his sensitivity well. Stark Sands (Kinky Boots) plays against type as the racist prosecutor Horace Gilmer. Frederick Weller (Mothers and Sons, Glengarry Glen Ross) is an appropriately sinister Bob Ewell. Erin Wilhelmi (The Crucible) is excellent as his daughter Mayella. Phyllis Somerville (Over Here, “The Big C”) is fine as the acerbic Mrs. Henry Dubose. Dakin Matthews (The Iceman Cometh) as the judge and Danny McCarthy (The Iceman Cometh) as the sheriff are both effective. Gbenga Akinnagbe (A View from 151st Street) is a quietly forceful Tom Robinson. In an interesting casting move, Danny Wolohan (The Low Road, The Flick) successfully plays both Mr. Cunningham and Boo Radley. Liv Rooth (Is He Dead?, All in the Timing) doubles as Dill’s mother and Miss Stephanie. The fluid staging is greatly enhanced by Miriam Buether’s (Three Tall Women) wonderful set that rapidly transforms between locations. The period costumes by Ann Roth (The Nance) are also fine. A few of the changes play to current sensibilities: the jury’s verdict is much quicker and a police shooting is much more violent. The jury’s seats remain empty, as if to lead us to project ourselves into them. Although Atticus is still very much at the center, the play works more as an ensemble piece than a character study. Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady, The King and I) directs the large cast with consummate skill. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised how well this stage version turned out. Running time: two hours 35 minutes including intermission.

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