Atticus Finch Galvanizes Broadway

Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" astounds with the great Jeff Daniels.

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Jeff Daniels in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Taking liberties when adapting a beloved novel and acclaimed film to the stage requires, at the very least, skills nearly equal with the original author’s intentions. At this, Aaron Sorkin qualifies. His transfer of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from print and silver screen to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, is outstanding.

That’s if “outstanding” isn’t too mild an adjective to describe Sorkin’s accomplishment with what PBS’s Great American Read series has declared “America’s best-loved novel.” It’s Lee’s autobiographical tale of a Maycomb, AL lawyer, Atticus Finch, who, in the summer of 1934, defends Tom Robinson, a 25-year-old Black man, accused of raping a 19-year-old woman, Mayella Ewell. (Maycomb is the stand-in for Lee’s birthplace of Monroeville, AL.)

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As seen through the eyes of Atticus’ daughter Scout, son Jim, and visiting pal Dill, To Kill a Mockingbird is an indelible story. Lee not only explores small town bigotry but blends it with the awakening of childhood innocence to the ugliness of society. All as the youngsters recognize that honor can be a partial antidote to disillusionment.

This possibly controversial, litigation-inducing adaptation by Sorkin (A Few Good Men on stage and screen; The West Wing on TV) marks his first Broadway foray in 11 years. He retains most of Lee’s important plot twists while introducing discreet, pointed alternative moments to the novel and to Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning screenplay.

Sorkin’s changes — often simply nifty lines of dialogue — are too numerous to list, and my memory of Lee’s marvelously evocative manuscript may not be entirely accurate. One may, though, have questions. Was it Lee who has the Finch family’s devoted and wise retainer, Calpurnia, asking Atticus how long Blacks must be patient to be accepted as equal to whites, or was it Sorkin? Either way, having such a searing question asked is important because it’s still relevant, unfortunately, to our tenacious, 21st-century racist condition.

Similarly, Lee’s central focus — on the all-white jury of prejudiced men judging a clearly innocent Black man — was a harsh comment on our ingrained national racism when the novel was published and the film produced, and it still feels that way now.

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So here, within the proscenium, is stern and caring Atticus (Jeff Daniels) — as observed by Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Jim (Will Pullen), Dill (Gideon Glick) and perceptive Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). His defense of Tom (Gbenga Akinnagbe) against charges by hateful Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the father of Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi), is reluctant at first. As directed with immaculate care by Bartlett Sher, Lee’s characters are well served on stage, first and foremost by Daniels, a truly satisfying choice for the role that won Gregory Peck his 1962 Best Actor Oscar. Certainly other actors could assume such a classic role, but Daniels is inspired: whoever he plays, for the most part, he radiates unmitigated goodness (OK, maybe not in Dumb and Dumber or in David Harrower’s play Blackbird). Yet Daniels’ Atticus is also properly authoritarian with the children; during the trial, he’s increasingly angered. Even as Atticus bides his time while prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Stark Sands) holds the court floor, Daniels is difficult not to watch. This is an astounding star turn.

Having adults play Lee’s unforgettable children seems a big if, but only until the actors show their stuff. Keenan-Bolger as Scout, in a severely cropped blond haircut, has the most to do; I can report with confidence that not since Julie Harris, at 24, put her name on the theatrical map in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding has an adult actor portrayed a child more beautifully. The precocity of her Scout is completely believable — and without resorting to clichéd childhood depictions. The same is also true of Pullen and Glick. (Dill is modeled after Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. Did Sorkin add dialogue to underline the connection?)

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Although there are moments in To Kill a Mockingbird when Weller — mustachioed and nearly unrecognizable — goes over the top as the profoundly bigoted Tom Ewell, his histrionics may be ascribed to Lee’s problem in heightening villainy for effect on the page. Weller, too, then, remains an asset to a flawless ensemble. As do Jackson, Wilhelmi, Sands, Akinnagbe — and also Dakin Matthews as a gently firm Judge Taylor; Neal Huff as town drunk Link Deas (who gets a whiz of a scene to himself); Phyllis Somerville as nasty neighbor Mrs. Henry DuBose; Danny McCarthy as thoughtful Sheriff Heck Tate; and Liv Rooth as gossipy Miss Stephanie as well as Dill’s sharp-tongued Mother. Especially commendable is Danny Wolohan, playing both poor farmer Mr. Cunningham and the feared, but ultimately timid, Boo Radley.

(For those who know the book and film and wonder if Scout recognizing Boo toward the end is as moving as it ever has been, here’s confirmation: it absolutely is.)

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As noted, bringing To Kill a Mockingbird to the stage requires theatricalizing to some extent. Sure, there’s a cinematic element at work as cast members are called upon to shift furniture and props smoothly from scene to scene. But director Sher and set designer Miriam Buether — plus lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and sound designer Scott Lehrer — are expert artists. Their shifts from courthouse to Finch front porch to jailhouse are easy as pecan pie.

Maybe the only thing missing is the Blacks-only balcony at the courthouse from which Scout, Jim and Dill watch the trial proceedings with Calpurnia. Here they watch from ground level.

Scout’s prize-winning ham costume (courtesy of designer Ann Roth) has to be praised. As does Adam Guettel’s unobtrusive music, played by Kimberly Grigsby at the pump organ and by guitarist Allen Tedder.

With all the first-rate work on display in this remarkable take on Lee’s masterpiece, patrons have much to mull as they exit the theater. There are the children learning, one fateful summer, that life holds many complications. There are the scenes that Atticus shares with Calpurnia, including when she points out subtle ways in which he allows his unexamined racial biases to emerge. It may be that scene that a member of the audience finds hitting closest to home. If so, so be it.