to kill a mockingbird - broadway - feature

To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway

***

I was initially excited to see To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway, and bought a pair of tickets months ago.  My enthusiasm was diminished after that when I learned that the Broadway production was aggressively enforcing its rights against various amateur productions around the country (productions that would not and could not possibly interfere with a Broadway show).  I was mollified a bit when the producer reached a compromise position, allowing at least some of the community theaters to go on as planned, but I was no longer predisposed to like the show.

Like it, I did, when I saw it a few weeks ago, but love it, I did not.  First the good: the acting was extremely well done. Jeff Daniels was excellent.  (He’s no Gregory Peck, but no one is Gregory Peck except Gregory Peck.) Celia Keenan-Bolger, playing Scout, was a standout in a uniformly strong cast.  I missed seeing LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia, but her understudy, Shona Tucker, performed admirably. Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom Robinson was a fine, solid presence with a quiet dignity.

***

I’ve written before that the novel isn’t really a civil rights story, or a courtroom drama.  It’s a coming of age story–specifically, Scout’s coming of age story. This production diluted her voice, however, having Scout, Jem (performed by Will Pullen), and Dill (Gideon Glick) all share in the narration.  The emphasis here was the trial and its aftermath, and unfortunately, although the acting was terrific, the script was not. Aaron Sorkin–well, he Aaron Sorkin-ed the play, amping up what was already a dramatic story.  Bob Ewell wasn’t just a mean, drunk, criminal, ignorant racist–now he was anti-Semitic, too. Atticus in the novel believed in his ideals, but was realistic about the racist citizens of Maycomb–he loved his community despite its flaws, with an almost saintly acceptance.  Atticus here seemed simply naive, seeing only the good in his neighbors, and surprised by the trial’s outcome. And the angry men who attempted the lynching–here they’re dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia. (And so, Scout’s recognition of Mr. Cunningham, and her inadvertent and provident interruption through her innocent conversation, made no sense–he looked exactly like all of the other men under that hooded robe.)  There were also some instances when the modern vocabulary was jarring–I appreciated the expanded role of Calpurnia (here, much more pessimistic than her employer, and rightfully so) but no domestic servant, or lawyer, or anyone else in the 1930s, would ever be arguing about passive aggression–the term wasn’t coined until WWII, used to describe reluctant, uncooperative soldiers indirectly resisting orders.

***

The slow pace of the novel gives the reader plenty of time to get to know the characters, via a series of events: Atticus’ shooting of the mad dog, Scout’s troubles at school, Walter Cunningham’s visit to the Finches’ home, the church visit with Calpurnia, and so on.  Here, the characters were flatter, less complex. That’s partly a result of the medium–a two and a half hour play can’t cover everything in the novel. But it’s also a result of the unnecessarily added drama–for example, Tom Robinson’s courtroom statement that he felt sorry for Mayela Ewell was a point in the novel in which he (and the Finches) realized he’d made a mistake, and turned the courtroom against him–it was unforgivably arrogant for him to pity a white person (even someone at the bottom of the social ladder like Mayela Ewell).  In the play, that same statement was the subject of an impassioned summary speech by Atticus, about how Tom hadn’t forgotten himself, but remembered himself as a man–a lot of scenery chewing, unnecessary to the plot, and extremely counterproductive for a defense attorney.

***

But perhaps I’m being a bit unfair here.  Even when adapted, even when tweaked, even when updated for today’s sensitivities regarding interracial sexual assault allegations, it’s still a moving story, still with grand ideals which we seem to continuously be unable to meet, to our shame: justice, the rule of law, empathy, courage, education.  I was genuinely moved during the trial scenes, and by Scout and Jem’s friendship with Dill, and by Boo Radley’s appearance at the end, and Atticus’ vigil by Jem’s bed. I found myself tearing up, and so did many others in the audience. So…if you have the opportunity, you may want to see this play–as I said above, the acting is really good, and the immediacy of the live theater is of course, special and emotional.  I wouldn’t make a special trip to New York for the occasion, however. You can find the paperback for $7.19 at Amazon, or for free at your local library. To Kill a Mockingbird is still very much worth reading.

***

Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.

***

Lead-In Text Courtesy of Official Broadway Site