The touring production of Aaron Sorkin’s 2018 drama, “To Kill a Mockingbird”—based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel—has alighted on the Segerstrom Hall stage to much aplomb. Having played in Los Angeles in November, the current Orange County presentation gives area residents another unmissable opportunity to experience the play’s excellent writing, compelling acting and expert staging.
The play’s story is just as relevant today as in its 1934 rural South setting. In Lee’s novel, young Scout Finch narrates about a summer when a Black man in Macon, Alabama is on trial for raping a white woman. Scout’s father, idealistic lawyer Atticus Finch, must argue for the man’s innocence to an all-white jury.
In his play, Sorkin expands the narrator structure to include Scout’s older brother Jem and their friend Dill, to entertaining effect. The three likable and lively children are present in most scenes, lurking in the courtroom, scampering around the Finch home or following their father to the county jail as he attempts to block local Ku Klux Klansmen from lynching the defendant. As Atticus observes, the Civil War seems to have happened only yesterday for some people.
The play thus emphasizes the racial tensions depicted in the novel and the injustices and deep prejudices economic hardship engenders—just as it does today. But to hear the demeaning names and condescending tones hurled at defendant Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) in court is shocking today, though in the play we see Atticus (Richard Thomas) strongly object and one of the children cry in sympathy.
We also see 19-year-old accuser Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki, understudied by Mariah Lee) badgered in court, though today alleged rape victims are treated with more sensitivity. In the play, only Scout (Melanie Moore) shows some momentary empathy in wondering what Mayella’s life must be like.
As directed by Bartlett Sher, the cast and crew of this touring production execute Sorkin’s script exquisitely. The set (designed by Miriam Buether) is spacious, evocative and modular, allowing the cast to fluidly reconfigure scenes to alternate between the courtroom and the bucolic front porch of the Finch home, where Atticus reads the newspaper and talks to his precocious children with a leafy green tree in the background.
Moore is delightful as tomboy Scout, running around with her brother and Dill in a blouse and denim overalls (costumes fittingly designed by Ann Roth). Moore’s delivery of Scout’s Southern-inflected lines—on which so much of the narration depends—is sharp, clear and nuanced.
Justin Mark is equally effective as Scout’s khaki-clad older brother Jem, on the cusp of manhood yet still a boy, righteously calling out Atticus for his seemingly over-generous view of despicable human behavior. And Steven Lee Johnson brings both humor and depth to the role of Dill—the siblings’ friend for the summer who hides a poignant secret that Atticus eventually coaxes out in his fatherly way.
As Atticus, veteran actor Richard Thomas brings a light and deft touch to his character’s all-knowing fairness, sometimes exploding in vehement passion in the courtroom. Thomas fully inhabits his iconic character, literally “crawling around” in Atticus’s skin, as Atticus suggests his kids do before judging someone else.
But here Atticus is proven more fallible than in the novel, not just through Jem’s pushback but most notably housekeeper Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams). In her familiar role, she not only points out Atticus’s hypocrisy but rightly questions how possible it is for someone to really walk in another’s skin, especially when that person is Black in the rural South—exemplified in Welch’s strong yet vulnerable portrayal of defendant Robinson completely at the mercy of white institutions.
Atticus can’t believe it when Robinson speaks the truth in court, not about what happened between him and the victim, but how Robinson really feels about her—something Robinson had been coached not to say as a Black man “knowing his place.”
Such is the depth of ingrained racism highlighted in the play, shown in its most overt forms through the words and actions of Mayella’s truly despicable father Bob Ewell (Joey Collins). Collins make tangible his character’s bigoted hatred, perhaps inherited from previous generations, as Atticus says, when the Civil War having ended 70 years prior and robbed uneducated farmers like the Ewells of free labor.
“All rise,” Scout intones more than once. We the audience are invited to rise up to counter the continuing racism of our own time—the extreme difficulty of which the play makes palpable. And yet, characters like the just Judge Taylor (David Manis), sympathetic yet straight-shooting Sheriff Tate (David Christopher Wells) and “drunk” Link Deas (a warm Jeff Still) provide potential hope for a new day.
And if you remember Boo Radley from the book, you’ll appreciate his ghostly appearance late in the performance (played by Travis Johns)—someone instinctually doing right from the shadows now brought into the light of truth, like us with this illuminating play, so we might rise to its challenge.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” continues at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, through Jan. 8. Tickets are $49 to $129 for performances Tuesday through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at SCFTA.org or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Run time is two hours and 55 minutes, including intermission. Masks are optional.