Photo by Julieta Cervantes
For improv actors, the golden rule is "Yes, and..." That is, the key to continuing any improvisation is to accept whatever the last person said and then embellish on it by beginning the next piece with those two words. But for those who attend To Kill a Mockingbird, the national touring show now at Playhouse Square, one helpful approach might be, "Yes, but..."
Written by Aaron Sorkin, master of erudite, machine-gun dialog that dazzled us all in shows such as The West Wing on TV and films such as Steve Jobs and Moneyball, this adaptation of Ms. Lee's iconic work tweaks a number of elements while maintaining the overall thrust of the book, as well as the movie version featuring Gregory Peck as the noble lawyer Atticus Finch. The result is a play that is utterly pleasing on the surface, thanks to a superior cast that is fully in tune with the crisp pacing of director Bartlett Sher.
Upon reflection, however, there are a collection of moments that give one pause, triggering the "Yes, but..." impulse. Just as in the original material, the story is narrated by Finch's six-year-old tomboy daughter Scout, played by adult actor Melanie Moore with fiery assurance. Additional narration is handled by her brother Jem (Justin Mark) and a precocious pal, Dill (Steven Lee Johnson), modeled after Lee's real-life friend Truman Capote.
Interestingly, although it all takes place in a small Alabama town during the Depression,the opening scene happens in a stark, gray warehouse space that would seem appropriate for a restaging of Reservoir Dogs. The rest of the scenes are located in that space, primarily with stylized suggestions of the Finch front porch and, of course, the courtroom.
This sends a message that this adaptation will not attempt to recreate the warm and fuzzy feel of small-town Alabama in the 1930s, where the film was set. Instead, this is a deconstructed Mockingbird, rearranged so that certain scenes can be shoved together to increase the dramatic effect. Yes, this works at times, but it also has its downsides.
Unlike the source material, this version starts with the courtroom scene where Tom Robinson, a clearly innocent Black man, is on trial for raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell (a shattering Arianna Gayle Stucki), who lives with her redneck and abusive father Bob (the formidable Joey Collins). That iconic courtroom confrontation is then spread throughout the two acts, not saved to the end. Yes, it moves the story along at a clip that audiences these days appreciate. But by not setting the scene of Scout and Jem's coming of age, in a town which they perceived as friendly and welcoming until they come face-to-face with the ugly truth of racism, something is lost.
Of course, most of us recall the Peck performance as Atticus, who intoned his simple wisdom and compassion with few words, spoken in his trademark growl. Here, that role is taken by Richard Thomas, the well-known film and TV actor who brings a natural warmth to the role, delivering gentle and humorous nudges to keep the kids on the right path. But when Atticus viciously attacks Mayella during his cross-examination, his intentionally out-of-character rant seems to arrive out of the blue and undercuts his slow realization that, perhaps, everyone in town isn't a "good person" as he once thought.
These are some of the traps the play falls into due to its episodic, non-linear progression. While Sorkin has wisely given the two Black characters, Tom and Finch's housekeeper Calpurnia, more words to say, they still seem minimized in a story that still frames the white man—even with his flaws—as the paragon of virtue. As Tom, Yaegel T. Welch simmers with righteous intent, and Jacqueline Williams lands each of Calpurnia's well-justified snarky comments with perfect timing, even though they seem a bit pat at times (ie. cue the sassy Black gal).
The conclusion of the play is still another "Yes, but..." moment when—after the courtroom scene ends – a crime is committed and then covered up. The play then slithers to a resolution that is missing the snap and energy that would seem more fitting.
In sum, this Mockingbird is a stellar effort, a smooth and professional production in all respects. And if you grew up loving the book and/or the movie, this will spark many fond remembrances.
But we are living in a world where racism is still rampant, where the right to vote of minorities and the poor are being eroded (nay, demolished) every day. Also, if a progressive single white dad like Atticus Finch showed up today, he would likely be scorned by half the population as a woke libtard and likely accused of being a pedophile, or worse.
As Atticus says, "It's a crime to kill a mockingbird" because they are innocent, but there are still many "mockingbirds" under imminent threat in this fractured country.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Through May 15 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave., playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000.