Review: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at Shubert Theater

By Jonathan Spira on 5 February 2019
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Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning and controversial 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” – a book that tackles the difficult topic of race in America as well as class, courage, and values – has largely withstood the test of time and book bans over almost seven decades.

To bring “Mockingbird” to the Broadway stage of the late 2010s, however, somewhat of a renovation was required: a reworking significant enough that the estate of Harper Lee sued the production for having deviated too much from the original version. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the Broadway adaptation, dispenses with the novel’s initial focus on a bucolic life in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, and places the courtroom drama front and center, returning to it throughout the show, while giving the black characters in the story a greater voice, resulting in a fresh and compelling approach to the classic work.

The story remains that of Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels), a white lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman in the Deep South. Atticus remains Maycomb’s moral compass but he is clearly conflicted over that role.


Meanwhile, Atticus’ children, Jem and Scout, as well as their friend Dill (a character inspired by her childhood friend Truman Capote), serve as both narrators and observers of the trial and its inevitable, tragic aftermath, roles that take on tremendous gravitas thanks to the brilliant stage performances of the three adult actors portraying the children, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, and Gideon Glick, respectively.

For those who grew up with the novel or the 1962 Robert Mulligan film starring Gregory Peck, the Broadway “Mockingbird” will be a refreshing change of pace. The show opens to Adam Guettel’s doleful guitar and organ music that helps build the suspense throughout the play. In Miriam Beuther’s striking Depression-era set, both the courthouse and Atticus’s house and front porch silently move in and out of a barn, and Ann Roth nails it with the latest fashions from Depression-era Alabama.

Calpurnia (played formidably by LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is more of a sister figure to Atticus than just a deferential servant, a state of affairs noted by Scout; Atticus’ client, Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), is less of a bystander in the play than in the novel, gaining a bit of airtime with which to state his concerns.

What’s lost in the move to Broadway is the Bildungsroman that is Scout’s moral education as she comes to terms with the hypocrisies of the world around her. This is substituted by a greater focus on Atticus, a noble and courageous attorney whose ideals are something he believes the world merely has to catch up to, someone who insists that – no matter what – you can’t judge a person till you crawl inside his skin and walk around in it.

Scout remains a skeptic until the end: Just how did Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller, who rather appropriately slithers across the stage) end up falling on his knife? Only at the very end does she finally understand exactly how such an occurrence might be possible although purists in the audience might wonder how Ewell in the Broadway version became an anti-Semite in addition to being a drunk, and a racist, and a purported Klan member.

Just as in the novel (and in the movie), the trial is both riveting although broken up by moments of hilarity, thanks to the wry comments of the inimitable Dakin Matthews’ Judge Taylor, who clearly does not tolerate fools in his courtroom.

What’s most remarkable about the production is that, to the credit of Sorkin and Sher, this theatergoer – who knows the story backwards and forwards – hung on every word as if he were experiencing it for the first time.


To Kill a Mockingbird
Shubert Theater
225 West 44 Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
Runtime: 2 hours and 35 minutes

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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