Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” has alighted at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, and it’s about time since the story is just as relevant today as it was more than six decades ago. As protagonist Atticus Finch laments, the Civil War seems to have happened only “yesterday” for some people even now.
That said, to hear the demeaning names and condescending tones hurled at Black characters in the play’s 1934 Alabama setting is shocking today. So is seeing how a presumed rape victim is badgered in court, however manipulative, deluded or ignorant she may be.
Yet these are the elements Sorkin brings to the surface with his 2018 script that restructures the story to align with the novel’s pivotal court trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman, expertly directed by Bartlett Sher.
We also hear more voices in the play than in the novel, which is narrated by Atticus’s young daughter Scout. Here we get the weighty perspectives of the accused Tom Robinson the Finch family’s long-time Black housekeeper Calpurnia.
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 bannistered 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.
All three children are well cast and entertaining in their roles, with Scout’s narration more distributed among them in the play than in the novel, and to good effect. The children are a near constant and active presence throughout, including flitting around the courtroom, observing and commenting on Atticus and the others as the trial plays out.
Melanie Moore is delightful as tomboy Scout, running around with the boys 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 well-timed 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 walking in Atticus’s skin, as Atticus suggests his kids do before judging someone.
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 laconic way, 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 Yaegel T. Welch’s strong yet vulnerable portrayal of defendant Robinson completely at the mercy of white institutions.
Also, Atticus can’t believe it when Robinson speaks the truth in court, not just about what happened between him and the victim, but how Robinson really feels about her—something we hear he and Atticus had rehearsed not saying and which we learn he is not even allowed to say as a Black man.
Such is the depth of ingrained racism highlighted in the play, shown in its most overt forms through the words and actions of accuser Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki) and her truly despicable father Bob Ewell (Joey Collins).
To their credit, both Stucki and Collins make tangible their characters’ bigoted hatred, which Mayella clearly inherits from her father and he undoubtedly inherited from previous generations—perhaps especially since the Civil War that ended only 30 years prior and robbed 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 (Richard Poe), sympathetic 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 Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, through Nov. 27, with shows Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $149 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (866) 755-2929 or visiting BroadwayinHollywood.com. Masks are optional. Run time is 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission.