By McKenzi Thi Murphy
I do not like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; nor do I like the 1962 film adaptation. Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation, directed by Bartlett Sher, won me over within the first five minutes.
The best choice this play’s production team made was to cast adults as the story’s three well-known children rather than let audiences suffer the presence of underdeveloped actors.
Celia Keenan-Bolger (40), no stranger to playing child roles well into adulthood – notably 12-year-old Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005 – perfectly encapsulates the childlike essence of 6-9-year-old Scout Finch. During no point in the show is it unbelievable for audiences to accept this grown woman as the kid character they likely know and love.
Will Pullen (27) and Gideon Glick (30) as Jem and Dill respectively are equally convincing, and need little suspension of disbelief.
Casting as the production team did was also the only choice they could have made. Sorkin’s adaptation significantly condenses Lee’s meandering novel into a more appropriate stage length, and has given the narration to all three children characters. Actual child actors have varying degrees of success in leading roles on the stage, and while the Shubert-hosted Matilda turned out wonderfully with four Matildas under the age of ten, To Kill a Mockingbird would not have been so lucky.
Since the first preview performance on Nov. 1, 2018, To Kill a Mockingbird has easily sold out its 1502-seat three-tiered seating section at the Shubert Theatre, consistently spilling over into standing-room-only tickets. Plays are rarely this well-attended compared to showier and more publicized musicals. By sheer theater size, To Kill a Mockingbird has had a larger weekly audience than Hamilton.
Of the six straight plays currently running on Broadway, only Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Parts One and Two has surpassed To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of highest weekly gross – $2.5M compared to $1.7M – and even the franchised phenomenon has yet to top Mockingbird’s average capacity.
A downside of Lee’s book was that she spent a good 150 pages drawing readers into the world of Maycomb, and though it is charming it does little to advance the plot. Sorkin expertly restructures the story, interweaving the trial with more domestic scenes that still drive forward the overall narrative.
Additional changes update the politics of the story while still not damaging the core principals or risking it becoming too overt. Now the two main black characters have more agency. The book is limited by showcasing them from a white child’s limited perspective, and a faithful stage adaptation of that would be unacceptable.
Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is at last able to give voice to his story. Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is no longer simply a passive maid to white adults and stands opposite Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels), serving as almost a conscience. She points out that regardless of the deed he is doing by representing Tom, he is still full of white prejudice.
At one point Atticus tells Calpurnia, “I believe in being respectful.” To which she responds, “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it.” The line received rousing applause. And if those words do not speak to modern day respectability politics, I don’t know what does.