“It started with the trial,” Scout Finch (the delightful Maeve Moynihan) tells us in the opening moments of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in its return run at the Kennedy Center. Sorkin’s focus throughout is clearly on the trial and the law and is less concerned with scenes among the town folk than earlier stage adaptations of this story. This shift adds urgency to the action and contemporizes the problem at the play’s core: not all humans are good deep down in their souls, as attorney Atticus Finch (Emmy Award®-winning actor Richard Thomas) believes. The law exists to protect society from the baser instincts of those who have normalized hatred and jealousy of the other, be it race, ethnicity, education, or economic status that sets “them” apart from “us.”
Sorkin’s focus is clearly on the trial…this adds urgency to the action and contemporizes the problem at the play’s core…
The novel’s story, set in 1933-35 in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, is well known due in part to a highly acclaimed 1962 film and a widely produced earlier stage adaptation. Judge Taylor appoints Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (Mariah Lee). Atticus establishes that Mayella and her father, Bob, are lying. Although it is obvious that the Ewells are not to be trusted, the jury convicts Tom regardless. Atticus believes he can get the verdict overturned on appeal, but Tom is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison. The story is narrated by Atticus’ young daughter Scout whose happy childhood, along with her brother Jem’s, is forever altered by witnessing mob mentality and human cruelty.
Sorkin’s script remains true to most of Harper Lee’s main characters, but raises the stakes for Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper, powerfully acted by Jacqueline Williams. Calpurnia and Atticus are depicted more akin to siblings than employer and household staff. She provides a strong counter to Atticus’ seemingly endless tolerance of people’s flaws when she states that some people don’t deserve to be saved. Calpurnia makes it clear that despite their close and lengthy relationship, she understands, while Atticus cannot, that the chilling reality of the guilty verdict is that most people in their community are racist to the bone.
Thomas seems right at home portraying one of the most iconic characters in American literature. His Atticus is warm, easy-going, even folksy, despite being referred to scornfully as an intellectual with “Hebraic seasoning” by the spiteful Bob Ewell (Joey Collins). He is a wonderful father and friend who sees goodness in everyone despite being a widower and a bit socially isolated from the rest of the community. If there is any weakness in this production, it is why it takes a smart, highly educated man so long to see what’s really going on in people’s hearts. Thomas hits a high mark in the later courtroom scenes with his passionate defense of Tom and his heartbreaking realization that the law moves too slowly to save the convicted man from the mob mentality infecting the prison guards as well as the townspeople. “The mob is where people go to take a break from their consciences,” he tells his children.
Yaegel T. Welch gives an affecting performance as Tom Robinson. Early in the performance, Tom seems almost too passive, too easily resigned to his fate. But when he speaks about jail being preferable to the electric chair, not just for him, but as an image his children can understand—and can even learn to live with—Welch has a profound emotional connection to his character that resonates throughout the theater. It is hard to buy Tom’s subsequent statement that he doesn’t hate white people. We could certainly accept it if he did.
Veteran actor David Manis turns the usually sleepy Judge Taylor into a strong ally for Atticus, giving us the welcome sense that the lawyer isn’t the only thoughtful, compassionate white person in town. Steven Lee Johnson as Dill Harris shines new light on this quirky character and brings a depth to this young man that seems to inspire Scout and Jem (Justin Mark) to feel more and be more. He helps them both grow up. Harper Lee based Dill on her childhood friend, Truman Capote, and Sorkin leans into this in his play. Johnson’s sensitive and affecting performance as Dill reflects the close relationship between Lee and Capote. Although Scout remains the primary narrator, the three child characters, effectively played by adult actors, also serve as a Greek chorus and take turns commenting on the action.
Miriam Beuther’s fluid, roughhewn, grey-toned set and Jennifer Tipton’s evocative lighting design makes it feel like the sun is always setting in Maycomb. This provides a contrast to Atticus’ rather sunny attitude for the first half of the play and foreshadows the tragedy that awaits in the harsh daylight of the courtroom.
Although this is a return engagement of this production, the house appeared to be sold out. The remainder of the short run is likely to sell quickly.
Running Time: The run time is approximately two hours and 45 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Strong language and mention of sexual abuse.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs through August 27, 2023 in the Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20566. For more information and tickets, go online or call (202) 467-4600. For more information, please visit www.tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com