“To Kill a Mockingbird” has become ingrained in our culture. From seeing the movie several times to reading the novel in high school and college, I am well versed in the story of Scout, Atticus, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. It’s also the reason why the word “chifforobe” is in my vocabulary.
So it’s not particularly surprising to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” turned into a play, but it is intriguing that it was done by Aaron Sorkin, the acclaimed screenwriter known for walky-talky affairs like “A Few Good Men” and “The West Wing.”
After a successful run on Broadway, the show, fully titled “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” is on tour and now showing at the Fox Theatre through March 12.
The story is virtually unchanged in Sorkin’s hands, as we find ourselves in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s as the events of a summer unfold from the perspective of three childhood friends, tomboy Scout Finch (Melanie Moore), her brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their precocious neighbor Dill (Stephen Lee Johnson). The children are played by adult actors, which actually works better than I thought it would.
Scout and Jem’s father Atticus (Richard Thomas, best known for playing John-Boy on “The Waltons”) is a widower and attorney who is tasked with defending an African-American man named Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) who has been wrongfully accused of rape by a white woman (Arianna Gayle Stucki) and her dirtbag father (Joey Collins).
In this deeply racist society, Tom’s case seems hopeless; but, Atticus clings to the belief that decency and the justice of the law will win out.
Term papers galore have wrestled with the themes and cultural criticisms of this story for over half a century, so there’s no need for me to go too far in the weeds on that front, only to say that the story remains as powerful and heart-wrenching as ever.
Sorkin’s changes are subtle but impactful, aside from injecting some levity into the proceedings, he adds some important flourishes to the character of Atticus.
Atticus Finch has taken on an almost saintly presence in American culture as an infallible icon of humanity and compassion, thanks mostly to Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the classic film.
Here Sorkin let’s Atticus’ flaws show through and while all the attributes that make him such a beloved character stay true-blue, Atticus seems more human and relatable as a man with doubts, errors in judgement and even prejudices of his own.
The overall cast is outstanding, although my only quibble would be that the touring production needs to invest in a dialect coach as some of the Alabama accents move from shaky to non-existent at times.
Robinson is a standout as a man on trial for his life and caught up in forces greater than anyone can control. Jacqueline Williams is also terrific as Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper who is equal in emotional stature to Atticus and the only person capable of calling him to account for his shortcomings.
And much respect to Thomas, who takes on this daunting role and makes it his own in a performance full of grace and charm.
No matter how many times you’ve encountered “To Kill a Mockingbird,” this production will blow you away with a story that, sadly, feels just as timely as ever.
“Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through March 12. For tickets call 314-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.