Review: To Kill a Mockingbird Isn’t Your Parents’ Mockingbird, But It Tells a Powerful Story

Aaron  Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not the same story you read in high school or reread last year. It’s not the award-winning film you saw many years ago. In adapting Mockingbird for the stage, Sorkin keeps the heart of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel intact, but refocuses its issues to the 21st century.

Sorkin’s play, now on stage at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre, gives the two main Black characters more prominent roles. The kids, Scout and Jem, are more sharp and opinionated (as kids are today). In restructuring the plot, Sorkin begins the trial of Tom Robinson immediately and turns Mockingbird into a courtroom drama.

If you find these changes troubling because you loved the book, remember this: 

This Mockingbird is a different medium,  performed in a different time. And furthermore, a play is a different work of art than a book or a film. A novelist may take 300 pages to spell out a story, bring a character to life, and explore an idea. In a film or play, this all has to be performed by actors in two hours or so. 

Richard Thomas as Atticus in the courtroom. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

Mockingbird is still set in 1934 in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. And Atticus Finch (thoughtfully played by Richard Thomas) is still a good man, a fine lawyer and perhaps just a bit naïve in his faith in the “good people of Maycomb.”

Bartlett Sher, who directed the Broadway production, directs this touring production with a careful hand and no hesitation in showing the violent racism of a small town in 1930s Alabama.

Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) speaks out for himself in court. He’s a soft-spoken Black man who occasionally does some chores for Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki) because he feels sorry for her. That connection results in a charge of rape against Robinson, and Atticus becomes his defense attorney. Mayella’s father, the violent racist drunk Bob Ewell (Joey Collins), threatens Atticus for defending a Black man and brings out the local Klan members, who threaten brutality against both Atticus and his client. (We learn that Ewell, father of a large brood of children, doesn’t hesitate to brutalize them, including 19-year-old Mayella.)

The kids—Scout (Melanie Moore) and her older brother Jem (Justin Mark), and their friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson)—are omnipresent in the play, often as narrators. The book is told in Scout’s voice, but all three contribute to the stage narrative, often talking directly to the audience. In the beginning, they give us enough backstory to prepare us for the opening courtroom scene. They are in the courtroom too, not sitting in the gallery but walking around and adding commentary to the proceedings. (Scout and Jem are about 8 and 12 years old in the book and film, but are significantly older here and are played by adult actors.) 

Jacqueline Williams and Richard Thomas, foreground. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

The Finch household is managed by Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams, a fine Chicago actor who we have seen in many plays at Goodman, Court and Steppenwolf theaters). She and Atticus have serious conversations about the state of life in Maycomb. Calpurnia takes a realistic view of her fellow Maycomb citizens and she doesn’t hesitate to tell Atticus what she thinks about his open-hearted views. She also reminds him about white privilege when he says the children shouldn’t have to be afraid to walk around where they live. Calpurnia responds, “Well, let me see if I can find a way to relate to that.”

Those conversations, and Atticus’ talks with the three young people, are some of the finest moments of the play. Atticus is more than just a father; he’s a teacher and a moralist without being moralistic. And he treats these conversations with his children seriously, without trying to sidestep or sugarcoat his responses to their sometimes probing questions.

One of my favorite scenes, late in the play, comes when Jem is seriously frustrated with the state of democracy and the justice system. When Atticus makes a reference to the Civil War, Jem protests that the Civil War was 70 years ago. Atticus replies, “It was yesterday. It’s always yesterday.” And of course, we immediately think to ourselves, “And it’s today, too.”

Mockingbird has several indelible characters who play supporting roles. Judge Taylor (Richard Poe), is witty and wise and perhaps more sympathetic to Constitutional principles than you might expect a Southern judge to be. Link Deas (Anthony Natale) provides important testimony in court for Tom Robinson and is sympathetic to Maycomb’s Black community. Mrs. Henry Dubose (Mary Badham) is the Finches’ mean-spirited, drug-addicted racist neighbor. (Badham played Scout in the 1962 film; she was 10 years old at the time.) 

The iconic front porch. Justin Mark, Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore and Steven Lee Johnson. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

And Boo Radley (Travis Johns), the mysterious neighbor, lurks unseen throughout the play, until he appears near the end, a Jim-Jarmusch lookalike, and makes friends with Scout. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to run 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission but it ran just a few minutes shy of 3 hours on opening night. Although the last 20 minutes included important details and events, the play was beginning to drag. I’m sure the director will address that by the time you see the play. 

Backstage mechanisms raise and lower the Finches’ front porch, and various house interiors. Some scene changes are performed by the kids and crew dressed in period costumes. The delightful and authentic set is designed by Miriam Buether, with costumes by Ann Roth, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound by Scott Lehrer, and an original score by Adam Guettel.

The play tells a powerful story, but the staging illustrated for me once again the unfortunate nature of the century-old proscenium-style theater. There’s a distance between audience and cast that can’t be bridged, even by a great script. I would love to see Mockingbird performed in a theater in the round, on a thrust stage or in a storefront theater. That’s when theater really comes to life.

This version of To Kill a Mockingbird did not arrive on Broadway in 2018 without some controversy. Harper Lee’s estate sued, claiming Sorkin’s adaptation was too far removed from the original story and that the character of Atticus Finch strayed from Lee’s version. After Scott Rudin’s production company countersued, a few issues raised by the estate were agreed to. The two sides settled out of court and the play proceeded. 

To Kill a Mockingbird holds the record as the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history. It began performances on November 1, 2018, and played to sold-out houses until Broadway shut down in March 2020. The production resumed performances last October through January. Mockingbird will return to Broadway at the Belasco Theatre this summer with Greg Kinnear as Atticus Finch. 

To Kill a Mockingbird continues at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., through May 29. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday with a number of matinees scheduled. Tickets range from $35-$149 and are available online or at the theater box office, which opens at 12noon daily. Running time is 2 hours and 50 minutes. 

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.