When Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960, it was an immediate sensation. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and students studied it as part of lessons on racism and violence in the Deep South. Its protagonist, the lawyer Atticus Finch, was held up as a model of moral bravery.
But over the years, the book has been subject to some scrutiny for its milquetoast politics and its insufficiently-developed black characters. And with Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of the story, those concerns are more urgent than ever.
Why, one must ask, should audiences revisit Mockingbird now, at this moment? Surely, some of the major themes of the story—racism, an unfair criminal justice system, and questions of how to treat one’s ideological foes—are mirrored in the America of 2019. But despite serious concerns from Harper Lee’s estate—it sued this show’s producer, fearful that Sorkin had strayed too far from the source material—Sorkin essentially sticks to the original script.
Much has been made of the interventions Sorkin did manage to make for this show. There’s the fact, for instance, that Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) actually lays an aggressive hand on a racist. There’s the fact that the Finch family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), is able to question why an innocent black man, Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) was shot so many times by guards when attempting to flee. And there’s the fact that Robinson is given the words—“I was guilty as soon as I was accused”—to call out the racist society that got him in trouble in the first place.
But Lee’s greatest blind spots stand. Ultimately, Robinson is still unjustly murdered while a white man, Boo Radley (Danny Wolohan), gets away scot-free for killing someone. Calpurnia, though more outspoken than Lee once imagined her, is still a diminished voice in a story that lionizes her white employer. And Finch is still the man asking his children to treat terrible racists with respect and dignity.
Through a modern lens, the passivist Finch, unfortunately, sounds like the right-wingers on the wrong side of the recent “civility debate,” which called for elected officials overseeing democracy’s destruction to be left alone when they go out to dinner. As many have noted, calls for civility in the face of political violence are not admirable; they’re dangerous, and they serve only to help buffer the powerful from justice.
Other than that, as the saying goes, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?
Turns out, pretty good. Miriam Buether’s rolling, paired-down sets do just enough to evoke key locations in 1934, Maycomb, Alabama. Kimberly Grigsby’s pump organ and Allen Tedder’s haunting guitar provide a soundscape that bring power to the show’s most important moments. And the acting, under Bartlett Sher’s direction, is often quite good. Erin Wilhelmi, as Mayella Ewell, perfectly captures the tortured posture of an oppressed young woman, whose transformation into a sputtering, incoherent racist on the judicial stand is totally stunning. Frederick Weller, on the other hand, is a bit too cartoonishly racist as her father Bob.
Meanwhile, the kids— Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother, Jem (Will Pullen), and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick)—are all right, though notably they’re played by adults. Keenan-Bolger, in particular, is almost uncannily convincing as a young girl. I’ll not soon forget her confounding and yet utterly appropriate way of running in this production: sideways, one arm flying ahead and cutting through the air like a pumpjack.
Their performances and all the Broadway slickness in the world, though, can’t save this show from its fundamental shortcomings. To Kill a Mockingbird was, indeed, revolutionary for its time, but today, like many other previously revolutionary tales, it falls politically flat. Sorkin, gifted as he is, may have been able to do something radical with this story if he’d had the freedom to do so. But as it stands, he simply hasn’t done enough to fight the notion that Lee’s masterpiece belongs in a museum.