Imagine being a Black man on trial in a segregated courtroom in Depression-era Alabama, accused of raping a local farmer’s daughter, and mounting your defense before an all-white, all-male jury of local farmers.
It’s hard to imagine that man getting a fair trial, even if he were innocent, which happens to be the case in To Kill a Mockingbird (★★★★☆), Aaron Sorkin’s riveting adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
At some point in U.S. history, the race, class, and gender dynamics driving Lee’s combustible scenario might feel quaint, laughably antiquated, obsolete. We’re not there yet. Mockingbird‘s Southern-fried courtroom drama still holds plenty of compelling truth in its reflection of racial injustice.
The accused, Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a Negro in official ’30s parlance, faces the electric chair — if a lynch mob doesn’t get their hands on him first. And seemingly all that stands between Tom and his worst fate is the most decent and honest white man in the county, a self-described country lawyer named Atticus Finch.
For this smooth-running touring iteration of director Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning Broadway production, Richard Thomas embodies Atticus in all his goodness, and complex moral reasoning.
Enshrined in the American imagination as an honest and decent country boy, Thomas injects just enough self-doubt and self-awareness into his portrayal to complicate the character’s heroic standing without diminishing him as a model of integrity.
Sorkin’s play — narrated by both Atticus’ precocious daughter, Scout (Melanie Moore), and willful teenage son, Jem (Justin Mark) — draws attention to Atticus’ tendency to excuse the bigotry and racial animus expressed by their “friends and neighbors,” while also encouraging his kids to treat all people equally. Don’t judge a man unless you’ve walked a mile in his skin, he admonishes Jem and Scout.
Atticus gets called out on his contradictions by the family’s cook Calpurnia, played with wit and savvy by Jacqueline Williams. Jem, increasingly frustrated with his father’s tolerance of their neighbors’ intolerance, also is critical, deeming Atticus to be meek in the face of corruption and hatred.
Thomas and Mark layer Atticus and Jem’s father-son conflict with love and respect, thus really putting the sting in the boy’s disappointment, or in his dad raising his voice in anger. On the other hand, in moments of deep sympathy between the two, the actors engender a tenderness that heals all wounds.
Moore adeptly juggles Scout’s role as guileless innocent and trusty tour guide to the town, often our eyes and ears on events just partly dramatized. Her Alabama accent wavers — and intentionally or not sounds dead-on like Amy Poehler’s hyper kid character Kaitlin on SNL — but the characterization works.
The Finch family rapport, abetted by Williams as Calpurnia, reinforces their bond with the audience as the household comes under attack, literally and figuratively. The script and direction pace the relevant reveals of the court case with masterful timing, which applies almost equally to the humor, except that a few comic beats are banged too heavily.
There’s nothing heavy at all in Miriam Buether’s graceful scenic design. Pieces glide in, descend softly, or are gently rolled into place, linking to turn a bare stage into a courtroom, or into the front porch of the Finch house. The town comes to life in the setting, as well as in the ensemble.
Yaegel T. Welch as courageous defendant Tom Robinson, Steven Lee Johnson as visiting-for-the-summer Dill, and Richard Poe as shrewd Judge Taylor offer solid approaches in support. Joey Collins’ performance as Bob Ewell, the ornery father of alleged victim Mayella, tips towards parody of a redneck villain, but Arianna Gayle Stucki is fairly mesmerizing as the prevaricating farmer’s daughter.
Mary Badham, who, at age 10, played Scout in the film version (becoming the then-youngest ever Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress), gives a feisty turn as crotchety, mean-for-no-good-reason Mrs. Henry DuBose.
Though, as funny as it is watching DuBose rampantly insulting everyone who crosses her path, she’s an eerily potent example of the sort of hatred that keeps this story current, and keeps honest and decent folks fighting for justice.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through July 10 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $49 to $199. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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