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Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "Mockingbird" returns to the KC

Maeve Moynihan and Richard Thomas in To Kill a Mockingbird
at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Harper Lee published one novel in the first half-century of her career, To Kill a Mockingbird. Most Americans read the book in middle school, but the most popular movie adaptation, starring Gregory Peck, likely has the upper hand in people's memory. Aaron Sorkin adapted the play for Broadway in 2018, where it had enormous success, leading to a national touring production that came to the Kennedy Center Opera House last year, a venue critiqued as too large for it. The staging has returned to the arts center on the Potomac, with most of the same cast members, but this time in the much more appropriately scaled Eisenhower Theater, seen on Thursday evening.

The movie version shifted the story's focus from young Scout Finch, Lee's alter-ego, to Atticus Finch, played by Peck, as a sort of white savior figure in his legal defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama. Sorkin followed the movie's lead, putting a few monologues of eloquent progressive pieties into the mouths of Atticus, Scout, and other characters, West Wing-style. The play's alterations to the role of Atticus were so profound that a legal battle with the Lee estate ensued. Following in the footsteps of Jeff Daniels and other actors, television actor Richard Thomas gave Atticus a lachrymose, supercilious quality that did not always seem the most fitting. On the other hand, this Atticus at least acknowledged his own shortcomings and racist assumptions. Lee's father, on whom the character was based, was related to Robert E. Lee, after all.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, A resonant ‘Mockingbird’ recalls American racism then — and now (Washington Post, June 23, 2022)
Sorkin intentionally emphasized the two black roles, Tom Robinson (a dignified Yaegel T. Welch) and the Finches' maid and cook, Calpurnia (played by Jacqueline Williams with caustic wit that almost stole the show), giving them more of a voice. This is undercut in some ways by having the Ewells, Joey Collins's cartoonish Bob and Mariah Lee's fragile Mayella, become caricatures. The truest portrayal of a southerner, equal parts polish and hate, was the vicious Mrs. Dubose of Mary Badham. Few are likely to recognize her as the same 10-year-old actress who played young Scout across from Gregory Peck in the movie. It was a stretch to cast adults in the three child roles, but Maeve Moynihan (Scout), Justin Mark (Gem), and especially Steven Lee Johnson's Dill used physical elements to appear more awkward and young. In his vocal and physical choices, Johnson seemed to point up the idea that Lee based the character of Dill on her real-life childhood friendship with Truman Capote.

Sorkin's main conceit, that the three children narrate the action, which shifts back and forth between the trial and other scenes, made theatrical sense. The repeated breaking of the fourth wall wearied before the evening was over, especially when Thomas's Atticus directed some of his final summation from the trial pointedly at the audience rather than the jury box (drawing attention, perhaps, to the reason why there were no jurors seated in it). The change to the final scene, where the now-dead Tom Robinson appears and points a line in a Bible out to Atticus, remains in the production.

The elephant in the room for this play is Harper Lee's second book, Go Set a Watchman, published rightly or wrongly in 2015, a few years before the play was adapted. It is Lee's first draft of the book that became Mockingbird, and in it the 26-year-old version of Scout returns from New York to her home town in Alabama to visit Atticus. She is disappointed to realize that Atticus is not the saint he seems in Mockingbird, that he is trying to slow down racial progress in the county, even working against the NAACP. Lee's first take on the material makes Atticus a more human, fallible character than how he is often interpreted. He is a more realistic version of a white man living in the Jim Crow south, rather than the version encouraged by Lee's northern editor, when as Lee herself put it, she was young and did as she was told.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through August 27.

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