Review: A Broadway ‘Mockingbird,’ Elegiac and Effective

As this is a trial, let’s have a verdict: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened at the Shubert Theater on Thursday, is not guilty.

Evidence shows that it does not deface the Harper Lee novel on which it is based, as the Lee estate at one point contended. And far from devaluing the property as a moneymaking machine, it has created an honorable stream of income that should pour into the estate’s coffers for years to come.

But as any reader of the novel knows, to say something is not guilty is not the same as saying it’s innocent. And this adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Jeff Daniels — is hardly innocent.

How could it be? Every ounce of glossy know-how available at the highest echelons of the commercial theater has been applied to ensure its success, both on Lee’s terms and on what it supposes are ours.

It is, for one thing, gorgeously atmospheric, from the weathered barn-red siding that serves as the show curtain (the set design is by Miriam Buether) to Adam Guettel’s mournful guitar and pump organ music, which sounds like hymns decomposing before your ear. Mr. Sher has made sure that every movement, every perfectly cast face, every stage picture and costume tells the story so precisely that it would do so even without words.

Ah, but the words. As Mr. Sorkin has explained pre-emptively, he faced a dilemma in approaching the material. He could not alter the plot significantly lest he alienate audiences who grew up treasuring the 1960 novel or the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. “To Kill a Mockingbird” still had to be the story of the widower lawyer Atticus Finch (Mr. Daniels) bravely standing up to racism in small-town Alabama in the mid-1930s. Defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, he could not suddenly introduce DNA evidence to win the case.

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On the other hand, if Mr. Sorkin did not make major changes, the play would be both structurally and politically insupportable in 2018. The leisurely pace of Lee’s narrative wouldn’t work onstage, as the previously authorized adaptation proved in its dull fidelity. That’s because Lee took her time getting to the trial, which doesn’t even begin until halfway through the book. For 150 pages she immerses readers in the charming, perplexing, ominous daily life of Maycomb as seen and narrated by Atticus’s daughter, Scout.

Mr. Sorkin does away with that structure, introducing the trial almost immediately and returning to it at regular intervals. In between, he backfills the information and characters the novel frontloaded, but just on a need-to-know basis. The narration — now split among Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger); her brother, Jem (Will Pullen); and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick) — no longer suggests long hazy childhood summers spent squashing redbugs and pondering why the world is evil so much as a Junior League police procedural.

This is very effective; Mr. Sorkin apparently trusted that the actors, working with Mr. Sher, would fill in the blanks, and they do. (Having adults play the kids is especially helpful, and Ms. Keenan-Bolger is terrific.) Also effective, exhilarating even, are the interventions by which Mr. Sorkin set out to correct — or, let’s say, extrapolate — the novel’s politics for our time.

He had to do something. In a novel, we accept the worldview of the narrator, however limited or objectionable. Scout, who is barely 6 at the start of the story, can use words in print that would make her instantly unsympathetic onstage. We also accept that a first-person portrait of a white child’s moral awakening to racism will primarily focus on how it affects the white people around her.

But onstage, a work about racial injustice in which its principal black characters have no agency would be intolerable, so Mr. Sorkin makes a series of adjustments. With Scout’s point of view subordinated, we see Atticus through our own eyes instead of hers, making him the firm center of the story.

This gives Mr. Sorkin room to expand the roles of the two main black characters Atticus deals with: his client Tom (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and his housekeeper, Calpurnia. In Tom’s case, the expansion is subtle, largely a matter of giving him the dignity of voicing his own predicament. “I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” he says — adapting a line that was Scout’s in the book.

Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) gets a bigger remake. Bossy toward the children but deferential toward white adults in Lee’s account, she serves in the play as Atticus’s foil and needling conscience. Mocking his argument that Maycomb needs more time to overcome racism, she says, “How much time would Maycomb like?” Their tart but loving squabbles remind Scout of hers with Jem: They behave, she realizes, like brother and sister.

That’s a startling and somewhat sentimentalized notion, but Ms. Jackson and Mr. Daniels, inerrant in their dryness, pull it off. Mr. Daniels’s unfussy mastery is useful throughout, especially in toning down some of Mr. Sorkin’s showier attempts to punch up the story. Only by underplaying Atticus’s “West Wing”-style summation in court — “We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding!” — does Mr. Daniels avoid the appearance of speaking to television cameras from the future.

But Mr. Sorkin wants a total hero and gets one. When Bob Ewell, the father of the woman supposedly raped, shows up on the Finches’ porch to make threats, Atticus does some kind of flip-and-fold maneuver on him, leaving him groaning in pain. We accept this not only because it’s satisfying but because Mr. Sorkin’s Ewell (Frederick Weller at his most feral) is not merely a violent drunk and a racist but a foaming-at-the-mouth monstrosity. For good measure, he’s now an anti-Semite, too, which on Broadway feels like pandering.

Still, most of these adjustments succeed in themselves. And the material taken largely unchanged from Lee is, naturally, successful as well. The trial, presided over by the hilarious Dakin Matthews as Judge Taylor, is riveting, especially when Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, takes the stand. As played by Erin Wilhelmi, holding herself like a bent pipe cleaner in a print dress, she is a living illustration of pathos transmuted into rage.

It’s what happens in the gap between the old and new storytelling styles, as Mr. Sorkin tries to kill two mockingbirds with one stone, that gives me pause. His play, with its emphasis on the trial, is about justice, and is thus a bright-line tragedy.

The novel is about something much murkier: accommodation. Atticus — who was based to some extent on Lee’s father — despises racism as a form of incivility but insists that any man, even Bob Ewell, can be understood if you walk in his shoes or crawl around in his skin. It’s hardly a comedy but is nevertheless hopeful to the extent that it clears some space for a future.

These are two worthy ideas, if contradictory. In light of racial injustice, accommodation seems to be a white luxury; in light of accommodation, justice seems hopelessly naïve. Perhaps what this beautiful, elegiac version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” most movingly asks is: Can we ever have both?

To Kill a Mockingbird

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