Thursday, February 14, 2019

164 (2018-2019): Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (seen February 13, 2019)

“Each Man Must Have His Dignity”

Unless you’ve been living with that now-deceased robot on Mars, you probably know that the late Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, about racism in a 1934 Alabama town, which may be even more widely known for its 1962 movie adaptation by Horton Foote, is now a widely, if not universally, acclaimed Broadway play. 

Although previous dramatizations exist, this one, by renowned TV writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), billed as a “new play,” is the first to reach the Great White Way, where it opened in mid-December. Titled by its traditional name on the program cover but as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird on the credits page, it has been breaking box office records. That, though, happened after considerable controversy stemming from two federal law suits (amicably settled) concerning deviations from the original taken by Sorkin’s script. 
Jeff Daniels. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The chief issue of the legal dispute concerned the degree of moral ambiguity in the heroism of the central character, the white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man from charges of raping a white woman. Atticus’s nobility had come into question with the 2015 publication of another Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, where his racism is evident. Also controversial was the increased importance given to the feelings and thoughts of Calpurnia, Atticus’s black servant, as well as the expanded attention to the views of Tom Robinson, the man Atticus defends. These, and others, clearly outlined here, were made to reflect present-day concerns about racial issues.
Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Over these past two months,, New York’s theatre review aggregator, has (as of today) provided excerpts from, and links to 42 “critics’” reviews, along with brief assessments from 429 site members, each with a numerical score attached. The aggregate score from the 42 critics is 76, with the 79% designated as “positive” ranging from the rarely granted 100 (of which there are two) to 70; the 9% considered “mixed” going from 65 to 55; and the 12% in the “negative” slot covering 40 to a shockingly low 15. The aggregate score from the members is 93% positive, 5% mixed, and 2% negative. My own score of 80 places me in the positive category. 

Sorkin’s consistently engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening play is a cinematically episodic treatment that centers on Tom Robinson's trial, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. It is almost immediately introduced, after which what happened before and after are revealed through numerous flashbacks. 
Gideon Glick, Will Pullen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Filling in the blanks are frequent narrative passages spoken, not (as in the movie) just by Atticus’s young daughter, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher, terrific), looking back on the events several decades in the future, but by her brother Jem (Will Pullen, Sweat) and Dill (Gideon Glick, Significant Other), a boy spending the summer in Maycomb who befriends the Finch children. Dill joins the others in their childhood obsession of trying to spy on the town’s mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley, whose name keeps popping up, while his person remains invisible. 

This trio of constantly intruding narrators isn’t the best of Sorkin’s innovations, especially since the kids are played by adult actors. While it’s almost as easy to accept Keenan-Bolger’s overall-wearing, tomboyish Scout as it was to buy adult Julie Harris’s 12-year-old Frankie in Member of the Weddingthe device weakens with Pullen’s Jem and Glick’s Dill. Pullen, a rising young actor who’s stood out in every role I’ve seen him tackle Off Broadway, is simply too mature-looking and behaving, while Glick, playing a character Truman Capote claimed to have been based on him, seems merely odd as a gangling boy with manhood issues. Overall, the effect of having the children played by adults damages the story’s emphasis on the loss of childhood innocence. 
Frederick Weller (foreground). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
There are other questionable performances as well, notably Frederick Weller’s (Mothers and Sons) overacted Bob Ewell. I’ve often admired Weller, but as the monstrously racist, n-word-spouting, white trash (as we’d say today) father of the girl claiming to have been raped, his villainous theatrics are reminiscent of someone from a 19th-century melodrama. Another usually fine actor, Stark Sands (Kinky Boots), as the ferocious prosecutor Horace Gilmer, also tends toward excess. 
LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Jeff Daniels. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
But the solid acting of others, such as the thoroughly convincing Dakin Matthews as the fair-minded judge Taylor; the tragically sympathetic Gbenga Akinnagbe as the falsely accused Tom Robinson; the believable Danny McCarthy as the decent Sheriff Heck Tate; the shabbily sad Neal Huff as the so-called town drunk, Link Deas; the warmly maternal LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the socially aware servant, Calpurnia; and the credibly frightened Erin Wilhelmi, as the victimized Mayella Ewell, cover the few thespian flaws.
Erin Wilhelmi. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Topping them all, of course, is the brilliant Jeff Daniels (Blackbird) as the wise, paternal, brave, and noble Atticus, who undertakes the defense of a black laborer in an intensely racist environment. One may want to take issue with his character’s refusal to condemn evil for what it is, insisting that “each man must have his dignity,” even Bob Ewell. It sounds dangerously close to Trump’s post-Charlottesville “some very fine people on both sides” equivocation, but Daniels, who brings dignity and intelligence to everything he says, can almost make you accept it. He’s not Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his screen portrayal, but he’s a new standard against which other Atticus Finches will henceforth be judged. 

As the over two and a half-hour production hurtles toward its conclusion, the plot’s melodramatic occurrences begin to pile up. There’s also a too-noticeable tendency to craft highly dramatic monologues for most of the principals almost as if to satisfy each actor’s need for a standout moment. Regardless, what’s sufficient to sustain the blazing business of Tom Robinson’s trial as a grippingly dramatic tale begins to cool down once he’s been convicted, with what follows slipping into anticlimactic territory as loose ends are tied up and a more or less happy ending contrived around Bob Ewell’s death and the rather awkward appearance of “Boo” Radley (Danny Wolohan). 
Jeff Daniels, Gbenga Akinnagbe. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Director Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady) scores highly once again with his swiftly moving production, tying scenes together with Miriam Buether’s (Three Tall Women, The Jungle) piecemeal setting, exquisitely lit by Jennifer Tipton. What seems a huge, concrete warehouse, with a long, horizontal skylight, and thick columns, shifts from locale to locale—including the front of the Finch home, the courtroom (where a dozen empty chairs represent the jury), and the prison exterior—with choreographic precision as pieces fly and slide in with considerable help from the actors themselves.

In addition to the fourteen-member company, dressed in pitch-perfect 30s costumes by Ann Roth, are two always-visible musicians, an organist (Kimberly Grigsby) down left and a guitarist (Allen Tedder) down right, accompanying the action with an excellent original score by Adam Guettel.

Even with its drawbacks, Sher’s production gives theatregoers willing to shell out up to $179 for an orchestra seat a satisfactory return for their investment: a powerfully dramatic story, with emotional depth, comic relief, potent performances led by a world-class star giving his best in an iconic role, visual dynamics, directorial imagination, and social relevance. It’s why, when the tag line, “All rise,” is spoken, nearly everyone does.

Shubert Theatre
225 W. 44th St., NYC
Through March 17