‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ on Broadway: Jeff Daniels Embodies a More Human Atticus Finch
All rise for the miracle that is To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. Aaron Sorkin has adapted Harper’s Lee’s benchmark 1960 novel of growing up in a racially segregated, hate-charged, Depression-era Alabama so that it adheres to the granular specificity of the past while speaking to the harsh realities of a turbulent present. It’s a tricky, balancing act and Sorkin — in tandem with dynamic director Bartlett Sher and a flawless acting ensemble — never loses sight of making Lee’s tale thrillingly alive on stage. Brimming with humor, generous heart and gritty provocation, To Kill a Mockingbird is as timely as it is timeless.
Two things to get straight: The play isn’t the book. And neither is it the beloved 1962 film version that won Gregory Peck an Oscar as Atticus Finch, the gentleman lawyer from small-town Maycomb who damn near started a riot by defending Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a black handyman falsely accused of raping a white woman. This Mockingbird stands on its own. And it sparks theatrical fireworks that light up the stage.
Months before opening night, To Kill a Mockingbird suffered contentious legal wrangling between producer Scott Rudin and the estate of Lee, who died in 2016, over depicting Atticus as someone less perfect and more human than “the most honest and decent person in Maycomb.” When the dust cleared, Atticus was no longer a gun owner with a penchant for drinking and cussing. But he wasn’t a paragon either. In a towering performance from a never-better Jeff Daniels, Atticus is a good man besieged by doubts, fears and flashes of righteous anger.
There’s genuine daring in this production, with Sorkin deepening the roles of Tom and Finch housekeeper Calpurnia (a brilliant, bracing LaTanya Richardson Jackson) who finally get to speak for themselves as persons of color spoiling to be heard. Another bold stroke is casting the Finch children with adult actors. Celia Keenan-Bolger is sensational as Jean-Louise, aka Scout, the tomboy daughter who never tires of asking her widower father to explain the roots of prejudice. Scout, based on Lee’s memories of her own 10-year-old self, narrates the play with her older brother Jem (Will Pullen) and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick), a character modeled on Lee’s childhood chum Truman Capote. There’s a powerful sense of these children, now grown, still negotiating a world of festering social injustice.
While Lee took her time getting to the courthouse drama, Sorkin lunges headlong into the fray. And, under Sher’s urgent direction, the experience is electrifying. Racism is on trial here, and so is white accommodation, of which Atticus is not entirely blameless. Finch asks his children to walk in the shoes of another person before condemning him. But does that excuse Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the abusive father who forces his daughter Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi, superb) to frame Tom Robinson for a rape he never committed?
The Finch children can hardly grapple with the moral tangle of intolerance, except in their father’s lesson that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, a symbol of innocence. Playing Atticus like a gathering storm, Daniels is magnificent at showing the growing passion of a lawyer feeling the boot of bigotry on his neck. Atticus is hardly a white savior since his arguments for Tom fall on deaf ears.
There is no scene, like the one in the movie, where a black pastor in the gallery watches Atticus leave court in defeat and instructs Scout: “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your father is passing.” But the appeal to our better natures permeates this landmark production of an American classic. No dusty memorial to a distant past, the emotionally shattering To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that the fight against racism is blisteringly relevant. Sorkin sets a new gold standard for adapting one generation’s cry from the heart to another’s. The result is unmissable and unforgettable.
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