David Mirvish/To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bartlett Sher, CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, Nov. 21 to 26, RETURN ENGAGEMENT Mar. 28 to Jun. 2, 2024. Tickets here.
There is actually a monument to Atticus Finch beside the Old Courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama. The bronze plaque, set in a stone boulder, was commissioned by the Alabama Bar Association, and the heading reads: “Atticus Finch Lawyer — Hero”.
Monroeville was the hometown of Harper Lee (1926-2016), the creator of Atticus Finch, the small town southern lawyer who defends an innocent Black man accused of raping a White woman in 1934, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama (a.k.a. Monroeville). Atticus is a key figure in Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book, considered by many as one of the greatest ever written, has been a mainstay of school curricula since it burst onto the scene, and countless students have come away with a vision of the noble, stately, honourable man that is Atticus. The 1962 acclaimed movie starring Gregory Peck, not only netted the actor an Academy Award for Best Actor, but further cemented the image of the good and the best that is Atticus Finch.
If this is the hero that you are expecting in the play TKAM (as the title is known in the trade), that just finished a sold-out run in Toronto, and will be making a probable sold-out return in the new year, you are in for a surprise. The Atticus in this production, as portrayed by Richard Thomas, is a flawed human being, and instead of the tender, endearing and earnest tone of the beloved novel, you will be assaulted by a very powerful and moving theatrical experience.
In other words, this TKAM, which debuted in 2018, is raw, edgy and relentless, but then, that should come as no surprise when you look at the creators.
Writer Aaron Sorkin created the acclaimed, hard-hitting TV series The West Wing and The Newsroom. He also wrote the disturbing, Tony Award-nominated play A Few Good Men, and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the widely praised movie, The Social Network. Director Bartlett Sher is Broadway royalty, with nine Tony nominations under his belt.
In fact, Sorkin’s producer Scott Rudin was sued by the Lee estate for deviating away from the book, making Atticus less than perfect, but the case was ultimately settled out of court. Sorkin also made other key changes.
If you remember the novel, it follows three years in the life of Scout, Atticus’ daughter, beginning when she was six. Scout is the narrator, and it takes almost to the middle of the novel until the trial kicks in. In Sorkin’s version, the play begins with the trial, and very intense courtroom scenes are interpolated throughout the play. That an innocent man is facing the death penalty is very much on our minds.
There are three narrators, all adult actors, although they look young — Scout (Melanie Moore), her brother Jem (Justin Mark), and their friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson). This makes Atticus the central character, not Scout. It is also more realistic to have Sorkin’s sophisticated text come from adults rather than children. These three characters carry the show as they weave in, out and around the scenes.
As well, Sorkin has given the Black characters more visibility than they have in the novel. The Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia (Jaqueline Williams), and the accused man Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) show strong personalities and definite points of view.
The villain, Bob Ewell (Ted Koch), father of supposed rape victim Mayella (Mariah Lee) and Tom’s accuser, is a strong force, as is Judge Taylor (Jeff Still) who convinces Atticus to defend Tom to give him a better chance of avoiding the death penalty. Horace Gilmer (Christopher R. Ellis) is a suitably aggressive prosecutor, while Sheriff Heck Tate (Travis Johns) is your typical small town lawman. Of course, there is the mysterious Boo Radley (Ian Bedford — who also plays the hapless farmer, Mr. Cunningham).
There is also a nod to the past. The child actress Mary Badham, who was nominated for a supporting Oscar for her role as Scout in the film, is now on stage playing Mrs. Henry Dubose, the children’s nemesis, and she does a great job as an evil old woman.
The arc of Atticus’s character is beautifully defined. Thomas tries to keep an even keel, but Atticus is a creature of 1934 Alabama, and while he might consider himself a liberal, Sorkin (and Sher) don’t allow him to stray far from his roots, which creates an inner dilemma for the lawyer who can see the hypocrisy of his beliefs. Atticus is certainly not perfect, and Thomas gives him many layers.
Sher has demanded fast pacing, despite the Southern drawls, and tension crackles from the very beginning. The casting is near perfect, and all the actors give very strong performances. There is a definite sense of ensemble.
Miriam Buether’s set is a strange one — a towering, dingy grey, three-walled room. Southern decay? Entrapment? Set pieces are either flown in, or moved about by the cast to create seamless scene changes. Ann Roth’s costumes are period perfect.
If I have one little cavil, it is that both Thomas and Moore have mannered drawls that become repetitive over time, but that is one small criticism in an otherwise flawless production. This TKAM is guaranteed to make you look at the book (or movie) with different eyes. The injustice that is at the heart of the matter literally slaps you in the face.
If you didn’t buy tickets for the first run, I heartily suggest you get them for the second coming. This To Kill a Mockingbird is too good to miss.
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