Live Theater, Live Theater Reviews
Theatre Review: Aaron Sorkin Brings New Life to Classic Story With TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Tour
To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, was adapted into the classic 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Scout, and a very young Robert Duvall in his feature film debut as Boo Radley. Since then, it has been considered one of the finest motion pictures ever made (currently #25 on the AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time).
In 2018, a new adaptation written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin opened on Broadway to much acclaim, starring his Emmy-winning Newsroom star Jeff Daniels as Atticus, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout – who would win the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress for the show. Now, the National Tour of the critically-acclaimed play can be seen in St. Louis at The Fabulous Fox Theatre through March 12.
The story follows the Finch family in Depression-era Alabama, headed by the morally-rich lawyer Atticus (played by Richard Thomas, beloved for his Emmy Award-winning role on The Waltons). His daughter Scout (Melanie Moore) and son Jem (Justin Mark) narrate the events of the summer, along with their new friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) who is visiting their fictional town of Maycomb. The show cuts back and forth between events leading up to the trial of Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) – a black man accused of raping a white woman – and the aftermath which ensues. In an attempt to avoid pleading guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, and spending the next twenty years in jail away from his family, Tom agrees to trial at the behest of Atticus – who is his only shot at escaping the charges. This creates tensions in the community, putting the entire family in danger.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird features a powerful book by Sorkin, known for his witty, fast-paced dialogue and intense monologues. This version of the story spends more time with Atticus, examining what it means to treat people with respect and be a good person – as well as the downside of what some would refer to as “toxic positivity.” According to an interview with PBS NewsHour, Sorkin took inspiration from the former President’s statement in 2017 about, “very fine people on both sides,” leading him to question what that means for those on the receiving end of that defense.
Richard Thomas is brilliant as the small-town lawyer, capturing the spirit of the compassionate man and loving father we know – while adding new depth to the character through Sorkin’s updated writing. The actor has a firm grasp of balancing the serious subject matter with moments of levity that his good-natured character possesses. From the big courtroom moments to the small, intimate interactions with his children, Thomas gives a moving performance.
Moore, Mark, and Johnson do a great job of capturing the childlike innocence their roles require. It only takes a few moments for your brain to adjust to the adult actors playing such young characters, thanks to their brilliant performances through both line delivery and body language. The three of them have a wonderful dynamic, as each tells the story through narration and acting out the scenes they describe. Each of them also shares sweet moments opposite Thomas throughout the show – whether it is Scout questioning the ways of adulthood, Jem standing up for his family, or Dill spouting wisdom that seems far beyond his years. Giving the three of them the chance to help tell the story is a fun update, allowing moments of levity to be interjected throughout the show.
To Kill a Mockingbird features a myriad of terrific performances from the rest of the cast, including Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia – the Finch’s housekeeper, and caretaker of the children since their mother passed away. She has some great moments with Thomas, allowing us to dive deeper into the way Atticus views the world.
Yaegel T. Welch turns in a heartbreaking and harrowing portrayal of Tom Robinson. Most of what we see from the character is under duress in the tension-filled courtroom scenes, and the actor does an exquisite job conveying the pain Robinson is feeling – while capturing the gentle and kindhearted nature of the character.
Joey Collins is enthralling as the despicable Bob Ewell, a man you love to hate. The best villains in stories are the ones you forget are actors, and Collins does his job magnificently. Arianna Gayle Stucki also gives an emotional performance as Mayella Ewell, highlighted by her stirring scenes on the witness stand. Keeping the courtroom in order is David Manis as Judge Taylor, a friend of Atticus’ who remains as fair as possible and helps when he can. The actor gives an entertaining performance, while also turning in compelling dramatic scenes opposite Thomas.
Jeff Still (a Steppenwolf regular who appeared at The Fabulous Fox in 2010 during the August: Osage County national tour) turns in an affecting performance as Link Deas – Robinson’s long-time employer who takes to the stand to defend him. His character is given an intense round of questioning at the hands of prosecutor Horace Gilmer (played by Luke Smith), and shares a touching moment with Scout and the other kids. The expanded character is given some insightful lines about humanity, and Still makes a strong impact on the audience while on stage.
Travis Johns plays Mr. Cunningham, as well as Boo Radley – both characters who have great moments with Scout during the second act. Johns makes a strong impact in both roles.
This updated version of the classic story is true to the source material while touching upon issues that are still plaguing our country today. As evidenced by the snappy new dialogue from Sorkin, some of these unfortunate issues from the 1930s sound all too familiar. While some things have gotten better, we still have a long way to go – and this timeless classic is a compelling way to re-examine the way we treat and look at one another.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is playing at The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis now through March 12. Tickets and information are available at fabulousfox.com.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes