The act of bringing Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel to Broadway began with its own kind of courtroom drama: Executors of Lee’s estate objected vehemently to certain liberties famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wanted to take with the material and brought a lawsuit; at one point, producer Scott Rudin even proposed staging the script in full for a federal judge.
Compromises were made, and crises averted; the piece now features significantly larger speaking roles for two African-American characters, among other things, and a more contemporary tone overall. But does the world really need a woke Mockingbird?
The answer to that question, after seeing the lush new production at New York’s historic Shubert Theater, feels like an impressed, qualified yes. While Lee’s vivid snapshot of the Great Depression-era Deep South is its own valuable time capsule, the shifting sands of race and justice in America (and all the things that haven’t changed, depressingly, in the more than eight decades since) is well served by at least some new perspective. And the Emmy- and Oscar-winning Sorkin — ratatat duke of dialogue, reigning king of the walk-and-talk — does feel like a smart choice to drag it all into the 21st century.
Now, the trial of a black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) accused of raping the young, white Mayella Ewell (Erin Willhelmi) has become the play’s framing device, and characters often remark explicitly and openly on the baked-in disparities of “colorblind” justice in Maycomb, Alabama. To some fans, tweaks like those will feel like blasphemy, but Sorkin is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the narrative overall.
Here, Jeff Daniels’ Atticus Finch is more fiery and rumpled, less steady and stentorian than Gregory’s Peck’s famous film portrayal, while his daughter Scout (a sweetly plucky Celia Keenan-Bolger) and son Jem (Will Pullen) and their neighborhood friend Dill (Gideon Glick) are played by grown adults with child-like affect and innocence. The family’s beloved housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), regularly challenges her employer and spars with him verbally; she also, tellingly, gets the literal last word in the play, not counting a sort of Greek-chorus epilogue.
Tony-nominated scenic designer Miriam Buether has built an ingenious, elegant set that moves seamlessly between the Finches’ home and the courtroom, and director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, My Fair Lady) keeps the plot machinations moving at a smooth clip. If anything, it’s Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan) whose narrative import is shorted; he feels less like a full player than a handy deus ex machina trucked in for the final scenes.
Even with all its added Sorkinisms, there’s still something firmly classic about Mockingbird; it’s essentially a white-savior story where the savior fails, as nobly as he can. If that’s not exactly the freshest or fairest idea to come to Broadway in 2018, it’s still a time-honored tale, skillfully told. B+