The touring company of Academy Award®-winner Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” is currently having its Baltimore premiere at The Hippodrome this week. The play was nominated for nine 2019 Tony® awards, winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role. This adaptation had a legal issue with Lee’s estate and some criticism due to the author’s revelations about her father in the 2015 sequel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which were controversial. Atticus Finch (played so beautifully here by Richard Thomas)—a White lawyer who unsuccessfully defended a Black man falsely accused of raping a White woman in 1934 Maycomb, Alabama—was less than saintly in regard to to his views on race. The play sticks to the first book but Atticus is flawed—not the almost infallible portrayal in Gregory Peck’s Academy Award®-winning performance from the beautiful 1962 film version. (Peck made a lot of us wish he was our father or, at least, a member of the family.)
…a breathtaking and totally captivating production on every level, with a fantastic cast supported by the exemplary work of the creative team…packs a powerful, emotional punch.
Masterfully directed by Bartlett Sher, this “Mockingbird” is a breathtaking and totally captivating production on every level, with a fantastic cast supported by the exemplary work of the creative team. The play has taken the book apart and structurally reassembled the events to great effect. The characters of Tom (welcome back, Resident Everyman Company member, Yaegel T. Welch) and Calpurnia (the incredible Jacqueline Williams), the Finches’ housekeeper for generations, have more prominence. They speak to the unfortunate parallels in today’s world, with its continuing racial and religious injustices, that make it feel as if we are falling backwards. The play packs a powerful, emotional punch even though we already know the terrible, practically inevitable outcome. But there is also humor, tenderness, and joy.
The six-year-old tomboy, “Scout” Finch (the delightful Melanie Moore), her older brother, Jem Finch, and their new friend for the summer, Dill Harris (understudies Daniel Neale and Morgan Bernhard, stepping in seamlessly), act as the narrators, immediately breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience. It is a summer about the loss of innocence for these children. The adult actors believably play the characters as children—capturing all their youthful awkwardness and naiveté—and as older, perhaps young adults, in the telling of the story. The trial of Tom Robinson is interweaved with the other events in the children’s lives. Like the reference to the death (by improbably “falling” on his knife) of Bob Ewell (Joey Collins), the violently racist father of the supposed victim, Mayella (Arianna Gayle Stucki), the trial begins almost immediately at the beginning of the play. The events leading up to the trial take us back and forth in time.
Richard Thomas as Atticus does a brilliant job in his transformation from the mild-mannered, optimistic idealist to the fierce defender of Tom and his children, finally becoming a disillusioned man facing the realities of racism in his community. Until these hard truths sink in, he strongly believes the jury of fellow townspeople will do right by Tom, based on the exculpatory evidence that he is innocent. We watch, sometimes with the same frustration as his children, as Atticus keeps finding the good in everyone despite the horrific words and actions of people—particularly of the racism displayed so fiercely by Ewell, his daughter (parroting her father), and an elderly neighbor, Ms. Henry Dubose (Mary Badham, the original Scout from the film). All three actors’ performances are searingly brilliant, brutal, and hard to watch, which is the point. Welch as Tom is heart-breaking, touching, and strong. It is unusual that Atticus and Calpernia are in many ways like brother and sister, but Calpernia keeps her thoughts to herself—until she can’t. She doesn’t let Atticus get away with his own missteps but he allows her that space.
Dill, wonderfully played by Bernhard, breaks your heart as well. Left with his aunt by his mother (Liv Rooth) as she looks for another husband, he is gentle, sweet, and wise beyond his years. The boy invents a father he has never known and yet remains hopeful and strong despite what we find out about his situation later on.
Another character whose role has been expanded is the surprisingly progressive, and often funny, Judge Taylor (David Manis) who tries to keep the trial fair and on track despite the outrageous antics and inflammatory words of the prosecutor, Horace Gilmer (Luke Smith). Heck Tate (David Christopher Wells) is also very forward-thinking for a White southern sheriff of that era. Jeff Still as Link Deas is magnificent as a witness for the defense. He is viewed as the town drunk, but appearances can be deceiving. He is a good man with his own tragic story to tell.
The entire cast is just superb and also includes Christopher R. Ellis as Mr. Roscoe/Dr. Reynolds; Mary Badham as Miss Stephanie; and Stephen Elrod as the Bailiff. Finally there is Travis Johns who plays both Mr. Cunningham (whom Scout unknowingly shames as part of a group of Klansmen out to kill Tom, and possibly Atticus, who guards the jailhouse) and the Finches’ neighbor a few doors down, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Boo never leaves his house and is the subject of outrageous rumors by the community. He is a boogey man to the children until he saves the lives of Scout and Jem and they also discover he is the one leaving them small gifts in a nearby tree. His actions bring a kind of justice in the end, with the aid of the judge and sheriff—and to the astonishment of Atticus who still believes in the letter of the law.
Miriam Buether’s scenic design is very imaginative. Against a backdrop of what appears to be a large, rundown warehouse, the sets are in pieces and impressionistic, with no walls, creating the illusion of a place and come together, like puzzle pieces. The Finches’ porch, for example, has a window and door you can see through and around. Set pieces also come down from the fly space at the same time the ensemble and actors move parts of the set on and off stage—it all feels organic and finely tuned. But many places are left to the imagination, sketched out by the words in the script. The sometimes surreal effect is aided by the superb lighting design and sound design by Jennifer Tipton and Scott Lehrer, respectively. The costumes of Academy Award®-winner Ann Roth capture the Depression era of a slightly-worn and faded, southern town. Lovely, original music by Adam Guettel is provided by an unseen guitar and organ and completes the package.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” will make you laugh, make you angry, and bring you to tears—but mostly it will stay with you long after the performance is done.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 55 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 12 and up. Contains the use of the “N” word and other racial epithets, the sound of gunshots, and reference to sexual violence.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” runs through March 19, 2023 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information about tickets, call 800-343-3103 or go online. Masks are optional.
The Hippodrome will being hosting a book drive in partnership with the Maryland Book Bank at all “Mockingbird” performances. Please bring gently used or new books for all ages and reading levels – children or adults. (Do not bring CDs, DVDs, encyclopedias, magazines, old textbooks, or anything damaged/moldy.) Non-ticket holders are also encouraged to donate. There will be donation boxes at all entrances to the theatre.