Atticus Finch sits on his porch alone, stunned by the inexplicable decision by a jury to doom his client, Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of rape, to the death penalty. There’s some hope of an appeal, but this should have been a clear exoneration. As I sat in the Paramount Theatre audience, watching this quiet moment from the national tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird” play out on stage (through Oct. 16), I found myself asking a question that nagged at me the rest of the show: Who, exactly, are we supposed to be feeling sorry for?
The plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is likely one you’re familiar with, whether that’s because you’ve read the 1960 novel by Harper Lee or watched the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. This adaptation from Aaron Sorkin — known for television shows like “The West Wing” and movies like “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” alongside his stage work — shifts the narrative, centering lawyer Atticus Finch rather than his daughter Scout. Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill retell the story of Robinson’s trial and the events that led up to Bob Ewell, the father of Robinson’s accuser, mysteriously falling on his own knife and dying.
The story alternates between trial scenes inside the courtroom and the events leading up to and surrounding that trial as it permeates the town of Maycomb, Alabama. At the play’s center is Finch (Richard Thomas), who does everything he can to win this case for Robinson. He also, however, refuses to acknowledge just how ingrained the racism is in his friends and neighbors, repeatedly telling his children to be respectful and understanding of why they are the way they are.
Sorkin’s writing is as witty and compelling as you might expect. The courtroom scenes are particularly captivating. Arianna Gayle Stucki as accuser Mayella Ewell flies around the courtroom, shouting racist comparisons between Black people and jungle animals to anyone she can lock eyes with. Her striking speech echoes an equally disturbing tirade from her father, who calls Finch a “race traitor,” using talking points that feel eerily similar to rhetoric floating around the internet these days. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath to release the tension and prepare for the following scene.
But in this overt racism comes a perplexing audience reaction, as if realizing the appalling nature of racism for the first time. For instance, there was audible disbelief and disgust when one character reveals that his sick, mixed-race son was turned away from the hospital and later died. A disturbing story, but not particularly surprising, with the play taking place in 1934. Every step of the way, we’re shown racists and yet every step is also met with shock, both on stage and off, that the racists continue to be racist.
Which leads me back to that quiet moment on the porch, where the play seems to want us to focus on Finch’s pain. Sorkin has spoken repeatedly about his efforts to make Finch the story’s protagonist, giving him a flaw (such as believing goodness can be found in everyone) and then allowing him to learn. And while I acknowledge the uphill climb of adapting this story, I found myself struggling to care about Finch belatedly learning that racists are bad when even his children pointed that out to him.
Sorkin has also talked about beefing up the roles of Black characters in his version. But somehow, in this story around the unjust trial of a Black man, the Black characters still feel sidelined in favor of focusing on how their pain affects the poor white folks who are just trying to do the right thing. One scene sees the white character of Mrs. Henry Dubose (played by Mary Badham, Scout in the 1962 film) drop racist remarks only for the two Black characters onstage to silently react in the background without much consequence beyond that.
I truly hate yucking peoples’ yum, and I honestly believe that many will love this play. It’s an excellent introduction to the story for the unfamiliar or those who have forgotten over the years. Still, I can’t help feeling like we should be past many of the lessons being taught by this show. We hear all the time about the atrocities of the justice system, from addressing the inequity of our current system to revisiting how it failed in the past. I couldn’t help but think of Emmett Till, whose family is still seeking justice after their discovery of an unserved arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham — the woman whose accusations led to Till’s death — resulted in neither an indictment nor a confession.
That clouds how I experienced this play. I fault no one for enjoying it. Thomas’ performance as Finch is worth the price of admission alone. Director Bartlett Sher has Thomas deliver Finch’s impassioned closing arguments in the trial directly to the audience, effectively making us the faceless jury in this awful trial, and implicating us in its inevitable verdict. And yet, somehow, despite a beautiful performance by Yaegel T. Welch as Robinson, we’re still led to feel more sorry for the lawyer who lost the case than the man whose life is being ripped away or the community from which he came. That just doesn’t feel right.
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