Aaron Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is energetic but unfocused
At its best, the latest touring Broadway production of “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” finds crackling energy in its dialogue and performances, arcing from actor to actor during scenes of ever-glowing intensity.
This “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which runs Jan. 24 through Feb. 5 at the Buell Theatre, was not a parade of high points on Tuesday night. Written by award-winning TV/film veteran Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Molly’s Game”), and directed by revival-king Bartlett Sher (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “My Fair Lady”), it takes too many pains to prove its relevance. The still-potent impact of the racial slurs, and the uneasy laughter and throat-clearing of the nearly all-white audience during Black actors’ dialogue, announced that ably.
And yet, in an era where some try to justify police killings of innocent Blacks, or see the 2020 George Floyd protests as the province of vandals, the subject matter bears revisiting. Sorkin’s normally snappy dialogue addresses it with an avalanche of windy sermons and wise quotes. They invariably begin with a sigh, followed by “You know, they say … .”
The conclusions: The Civil War never ended. Poverty is relative. Kids — at least if they grow up to be Truman Capote (on which author Harper Lee based young character Dill) — can be insightful. Monsters don’t deserve your pity — and they’re everywhere.
Maycomb, Ala., lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) is confidently naive about this at first, clinging to the idea that his townspeople are good at heart but driven by fear and prejudice amid the Great Depression. He’s in no hurry to show them the light. He must be coaxed by Judge Taylor (David Manis) to take on the criminal case of Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a Black man who’s been accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman, Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki). Her contemptible father, Bob (Joey Collins), casts a pall over the proceedings, although no one but Atticus is brave enough to confront him.
The story is faithful in broad strokes to the book and 1962 film, but Scout Finch (Melanie Moore) is no longer the only young narrator. Brother Jem Finch (Justin Mark) and neighbor Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson) take turns driving and explaining the story as the trio prowls the stage. It’s an odd and not entirely bad choice to see them literally weaving through scenes like ghosts, commenting at times but mostly floating around and watching. It makes Scout’s original narration literal, but also needlessly omniscient.
It’s an interesting idea, both in that Sorkin thinks we need the hand-holding of such a familiar story, but also in the way it punctures the adults’ studied realism. It’s a bit of a relief that Bartlett didn’t cast kids. But it’s a constant reminder of the brain-veined speechifying.
From the outset, and especially with Scout, our narrators sprint through a veritable novel’s-worth of lines that breeze by like static. Moore comes off a bit like Amy Sedaris in “Strangers with Candy,” an adult who artificially leans into her kid qualities in order to show us how jaded we’ve become. Her showy, occasionally shaky Southern accent clears the runway for a fleet of questionable drawls.
The story starts with the finale as the kids speculate about how Bob Ewell “fell on a knife,” then rewinds to the events that led to it. Bogeyman Arthur “Boo” Radley (Travis Johns) is barely mentioned, despite his pivotal third-act appearance, and the action mostly flits between the courtroom and Finch’s front porch in constant, understated set changes.
Thomas, a stage veteran, shines when tasked with his great expanses of dialogue and the tragic arc of his character. In appealing to the better nature of Maycomb, he sacrifices his own soul, and you can hear the dejection in Thomas’ voice as Atticus realizes this. That Thomas or Stucki (who sets the stage ablaze as Mayella) have anything left to give night after night is incredible, particularly in the demanding courtroom scenes. A third-act yelling match invites wonder at how they don’t constantly blow their voices out.
By contrast, the under-used Robinson, as well as Atticus’s household maid Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), barely register except in a couple of signature scenes. One sympathizes with director Sher’s obligation to show peppiness, passion and pathos among such uneven delivery and pendulous blocking. Not a lot of it hangs in the air until about the second act, and the disjointed, melancholic score is no help. The set is spare and drab, with a grayish-brown palette and lighting design that leaves good chunks of the stage in dim, fuzzy-edged circles.
The show is funnier than we’re used to, though anachronistic in its glibness. The humor comes from everywhere, not just the kids’ antics. Some of it feels like odd bedfellows next to the rape and racism, which Sorkin does not shy from. He’s always looking for the line between blame and inherited prejudice, and that’s an admirable search. He also not-so-subtly comments on social media mobs and other 21st-century ills, drawing connections with a fat, red Sharpie. As such, this “Mockingbird” feels a bit like an idea board drowning in scrawled asides and brightly colored notes.
In Sorkin’s hands, the show can’t help but have cinematic pacing, adding what feels like an extra half-hour of chattiness. There’s a lean, vigorous play somewhere in there. It’s just hard to see it.
If you go
“Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Touring Broadway adaptation by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher. 2 hours and 35 minutes. Playing through Feb. 5 at the Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St. Tickets: $35-$135 by calling 303-893-4100 or visiting denvercenter.org
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.
Source: Read Full Article