Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Thankfully, the production's success enabled a national tour to launch–a rarity for non-musical plays. That tour berthed at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis this week. It arrived in splendid condition, making it clear why the show was a sensation on Broadway. The performances are all top rate, the production values–set, costumes, light, sound–are excellent, and director Bartlett Sher, continuing his duties from the Broadway production with the touring company, keeps the narrative in continuous motion, gliding in and out from scene to scene like a long, meandering dream in the mind of Scout Finch, the young girl who narrates To Kill a Mockingbird. Moreover, its beautifully crafted story of justice subverted by endemic hatred and childhood innocence tainted by the cruel reality of human society continues to mesmerize.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, of course, based on the famous novel by Harper Lee, published in 1960 and never out of print, in both hardback and paperback editions, since. Lee's novel juxtaposes the pleasures of life in a small Southern town (the fictionalized Maycomb, Alabama) in 1934 with the virulent racism and deeply embedded classism that poisons the moral fiber of that town. In 1960, the Civil Rights movement was in high gear, with little yet to show for its efforts. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of school desegregation, but its implementation was broadly resisted in the southern states where Jim Crow laws were still very much alive. Lee's novel used a historic lens, going back a generation, to provide distance that made her story more palatable reading while describing conditions that, for all intents and purposes, were still rampant.
Sorkin's stage version has the benefit of that same historical lens. While there has been progress in civil rights since 1960, the systemic racism underlying conditions in 1934 and 1960 is still with us and continues to undermine our many advances. Moreover, the classism that divided people in 1934 Maycomb continues to chafe at our national fiber, and all evidence is that in the past eight years it has gotten worse rather than better.
Lee's novel sets out two parallel plot lines. One regards the coming of age of Scout (whose real name is Jean Louise) and her older brother Jem (Jeremy), being raised by their widowed father, attorney Atticus Finch, with a strong assist from their long-time family housekeeper Calpurnia. Joined by Dill Harris, a boy staying with his aunt next door for the summer, they embark on escapades that stretch their imaginations and broaden their scope of experience, in particular regarding Boo Radley, a mysterious neighbor who had, rumor has it, done something monstrous in his youth, been sent away, and once returned home, has not set foot outside his house since.
The second narrative line is Atticus' decision to defend a young Black man accused by a nineteen-year-old white woman of raping her. There is clear evidence that the defendant, Tom Robinson, could not possibly have committed the crime, and further that his accuser, Mayella Ewell, is in on a cover-up of horrific misdeeds, but Atticus knows that the jury–which, this being 1934 Alabama, will be all white men–will be loath to set a Black man free. As Tom himself says to Atticus, "I was guilty the minute I was accused." Atticus, though, believes that his neighbors and friends are, at the core, good people, and when confronted with the facts will do the right thing. Judge Taylor, presiding over the case, has confidence in Atticus, but they are at odds with the rest of the town, in particular Mayella's openly racist and volatile father, Bob Ewell.
Sorkin's dramatization focuses more on the second of these narratives, still casting Scout as the narrator and incorporating the key elements of her summer-time adventures with Jem and Dill, but omits quite a few of those episodes. It is notable that the novel takes place over the course of three years, while Sorkin's play begins and ends (with the exception of a brief final coda) in just one summer. Still, the play runs nearly three hours (with an intermission) and is stuffed full of rich narrative. Sorkin had to make choices and determine his focus. Overall, he has chosen wisely and twines together the social justice theme of the trial of Tom Robinson with the coming-of-age journeys of Scout, Dill, and especially Jem, who wrestles mightily with the likelihood of growing into the kind of man his father is.
Atticus Finch is played by Richard Thomas. Thomas, who will forever be remembered for his role as John-Boy on television's "The Waltons" in the 1970s, has a long string of theatre credits, including on this same stage several years ago in the national tour of another terrific but very different play, The Humans. Thomas is superb as Atticus: idealistic, dedicated to justice though not without a sense of humor, and a loving father who disciplines his children by teaching right from wrong, not by punishing them. Thomas conveys the lawyer's indefatigable faith in the goodness of humanity and the determination to transmit those values to his children.
Melanie Moore plays Scout and is a wonderful narrator, questioning and discovering the meaning behind the events of her story even as she tells it. Moore demonstrates Scout's strong will, her intelligence, and her instinct for honing in on what is right. Justin Mark is excellent as Jem, still a boy but glowering to assert himself as a person apart from his impossibly virtuous father. Steven Lee Johnson completes the trio of youngsters as Dill in a wonderful performance that shows the boy's precociousness and insight into the human heart.
Yaegel T. Welch understudied the role of Tom Robinson in the Broadway production. Now the role is his and he imbues the character with dignity and decency. Tom is frightened as a Black man in a white man's world but does not sacrifice his sense of honor. Arianna Gayle Stucki, as Mayella Ewell, is a pent-up, ragged package of rage, fear, hatred and deceit, desperate not to lose balance and show her hand. As Bob Ewell, Joey Collins manages to speak, behave, and even look like the incarnation of hatred. David Mann makes a strong impression as Judge Taylor, trying to give justice a chance to breathe in his courtroom. Dorcas Sowunmi filled in for Jaqueline Williams on opening night as Calpurnia. Sowunmi's impassioned performance starts out as a quiet simmer but in the course of the play builds into a rage.
Mary Badham played the role of Scout Finch in the beloved 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. At the age of ten, she became the youngest actor, at that time, to ever be nominated for a Best Supporting Performance Oscar. She has made the issues and values imbedded in To Kill a Mockingbird her life's work. Now she has come to the stage as Mrs. Dubose, an unpleasant elderly neighbor who thoroughly disapproves of Scout, Jem and Dill. The character has much more to do in the book than in this stage version, but the role is still of import, and it is wonderful that Ms. Badham is here to bring Mrs. Dubose back to vivid life.
The set designed by Miriam Buether is encased in what appears to be an old warehouse with rusted window frames and chipped walls. Within that space, the set pieces smoothly glide in and out, rise up or are lowered down, to create the Finch home with its inviting front porch, the courthouse, and other locations. Ann Roth's costumes perfectly suit the time, place and each characters' station in life. Jennifer Tipton's lighting showcases variations of mood and tension. Composer Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) provides original music for underscoring and transitions that is unobtrusive but elegant.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through February 19, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $79.00 - $149.00. Educator and Student Rush Seats available for unsold tickets beginning two hours before performances, $40.00, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID. For tickets and performance schedule call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com.
Playwright: Aaron Sorkin; Director: Bartlett Sher; Associate Director: Sari Ketter; Scenic Design: Miriam Buether; Costume Design: Ann Roth; Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton; Sound Design: Scott Lehrer; Hair and Wigs Design: Campbell Young Associates; Original Music: Adam Guettel; Music Director: Kimberly Grigsby; Design Adaptation and Supervision: Edward Pierce; Casting: The Telsey Office, Adam Caldwell, CSA and Destiny Lilly, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Brian J. L'Ecuyer; Executive Producer: Seth Wenig.
Cast: Mary Badham (Mrs. Henry Dubose), Morgan Bernhard (ensemble), Joey Collins (Bob Ewell), Denise Cormier (ensemble), Christopher R. Ellis (ensemble), Stephen Elrod (Bailiff/ensemble), Glenn Fleary (ensemble), Travis Johns (Mr. Cunningham/Boo Radley), Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris), David Manis (Judge Taylor), Justin Mark (Jem Finch), Melanie Moore (Scout Finch), Maeve Moynihan (ensemble), Daniel Neale (ensemble), Liv Rooth (Miss Stephanie/Dill's mother), Luke Smith (Horace Gilmer), Dorcas Sowunmi (ensemble), Jeff Still (Link Deas), Arianna Gayle Stucki (Mayella Ewell), Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), Yaegel T. Welch (Tom Robinson), Jacqueline Williams (Calpurnia), Greg Wood (Mr. Roscoe/Dr. Reynolds/ensemble).