Aaron Sorkin’s new play based on Harper Lee’s classic novel now onstage at the Kennedy Center is set in 1930s Alabama. It could just as easily have found a home in contemporary America, with a cast of characters, dialogue, and intense racial animosity that echo that of some in today’s politics.
The cast is superb…a “Mockingbird” for the 21st century—a powerful new tool in the battle for racial justice in America.
Three children, Scout (Melanie Moore), Jem (Justin Mark), and Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) narrate the story of small town, country lawyer, Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas), who has agreed to defend Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a black man falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki), a poor, white woman. Atticus, committed to his view that all people have some good in them, maintains the belief that the jury—consisting of townspeople he’s known since childhood—will acquit the accused based on the overwhelming evidence of his innocence.
Atticus clings to his belief in humanity’s basic goodness, even as a group of men assemble at the jail to lynch Robinson, and the accuser’s father, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) threatens to harm Atticus’ family. Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the Finch family’s black housekeeper, and Atticus’ children attempt to open Atticus’ eyes to how his naiveté is not a virtue, but rather a betrayal of those harmed by racist, bigoted people. It is not until his own children’s lives are threatened that Atticus develops a more nuanced understanding of the people surrounding him and the requirements of instituting true justice.
The cast is superb. The children appear to be teenagers, but with child-like mannerisms. They are witty, insightful, and endearing. Bob Ewell’s (Collins) and his daughter’s (Stucki) racist rants are stomach-turning in their vicious ignorance, providing a stark contrast with the wisdom and quiet dignity of Tom Robinson (Welch) and Calpurnia (Williams). Even as the story emphasizes Atticus Finch’s flawed attempts at virtue, it retains his admirable qualities including his commitment to the law; his belief in the accused’s right to a competent defense; and his insight into the underlying cultural norms he must overcome to ensure justice is done.
Mariam Buether has designed a set that shifts between the Finch family’s front porch and a court room, with a brief stop in front of the town jail, and a stroll past mean Mrs. Henry Dubose’s (Mary Badham) prized flower beds (notably, Badham played Scout in the 1960s film). Costumes reflect the era, conjuring a world in which a person’s gender and status strictly determine their style of dress.
Sorkin has achieved a brilliant reimagining of this towering work of American literature. While largely true to the original story, his alterations will be noticeable to those familiar with the novel, but in a manner that enhances the story’s ability to enlighten, and in no way detracts from it. Sorkin has given us a “Mockingbird” for the 21st century—a powerful new tool in the battle for racial justice in America.
Running time: Two hours and 55 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs through July 10, 2022 at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, D.C., 20566. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here. Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking.