Aaron Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin, even when he’s working off someone else’s material. In his new adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now in a short touring stop with Broadway in Chicago, the creator of A Few Good Men, The American President, and The West Wing goes back to the courtyard drama/political grandstanding that he loves, where hope reigns supreme that a few well-placed sharp observations can have some effect on hearts and minds. And while his script does address some of the more cringeworthy elements in Lee’s 1960 book and the subsequent 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as white-hero lawyer Atticus Finch, it doesn’t fully grapple with the phenomenon of what critic Soraya Nadia McDonald cogently calls “TROTs: Those Racists Over There.”
To Kill a Mockingbird
Through 5/29: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 5/22, 7:30 PM and Wed 5/25, 2 PM; James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, 800-775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $35-$114.
This production, directed by Bartlett Sher, originally opened on Broadway in late 2018, almost two years into the Trump administration. But while it seems in some ways to be leaning into the (mostly debunked) notion that TFG won because of the “economic anxiety” of the white working class, it also, as McDonald points out, traffics in the comforting fiction that racists are something apart and alien from the rest of us, who are mostly decent people. Certainly one can’t fault Sorkin for the story that Lee chose to tell, and it’s of course worth noting that Lee’s story does at least attempt to address unequal justice for Black men, gender stereotypes, and the lingering effects of our nation’s failure to adequately come to terms with the horrors of building a world for white people on the labor of enslaved Black people (and though neither Lee nor Sorkin gets into this, on lands that belonged to Indigenous peoples).
It’s a beautifully acted show, don’t get me wrong: Richard Thomas, decades removed from the boyish John-Boy Walton (and a long way away from his recent role as Wendy Byrde’s manipulative “Christian” father on Ozark), still somehow manages to embody the combination of earnest scholar and relatable country lad that made John-Boy the sympathetic fulcrum of The Waltons. He negotiates the shifts from Atticus’s wry observational humor to his anguish with subtle and sometimes gut-punching power.
Some of the best scenes in Sorkin’s script involve Finch and the family housekeeper, Calpurnia (Chicago theater vet Jacqueline Williams, and what a treat it is to see her here). Williams’s Calpurnia calls out the white-savior complex of her employer, most notably in a scene where she reminds him that he muttered “You’re welcome” under his breath when he told her he was going to defend falsely accused Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) on the capital charge of raping Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki).
There is real tension in the courthouse scenes, but the scenery chewing from Mayella’s reprehensible father, Bob (Joey Collins), distracts; he’s more cartoon than threat. On the other hand, the presence of Finch’s children, Scout (Melanie Moore) and Jem (Justin Mark), and their quirky friend Dill Harris (an endearing and poignant Steven Lee Johnson) as narrators and witnesses to the trial adds a level of emotional heft. We’re seeing them learn about the depths of injustice baked into the bread, so to speak, of the world they’ve mostly seen before through the eyes of Atticus, who sometimes seems to think he can just reason his way to getting people to stop being white supremacists.
With the mass murder of Black people in Buffalo just last weekend, seeing this show now feels especially discomfiting. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the creators, and the production makes attempts at addressing other historic biases in theater. For example, Link Deas, Tom Robinson’s employer who testifies on his behalf, is played by Deaf actor Anthony Natale, who mostly delivers his testimony in ASL, with the children speaking the lines. And for fans of the film, there’s the original Scout, Mary Badham, showing up as racist neighbor (I mean, they basically ALL are, really) Mrs. Henry Dubose.
In short: it’s a smart and touching production that maybe doesn’t need to be done right now. As McDonald writes, “This Mockingbird reassures the Good White People that make up its audience that they are, in fact, good.” White people don’t need reassurance. We need reassessment of just what we’re willing to do to combat white supremacy.