Buzzed Books #91 by Chuck Cannini

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway

A friend of mine paced in his living room one evening. Bill O’Reilly spoke to him from a television screen; something about a man named George Zimmerman, who had fatally shot African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. What mattered was how this friend of mine fumed, how his nostrils flared, how his face contorted, how he ranted and raved, then turned to me and somehow concluded, “I fucking hate Obama. I hope they lynch him from a tree.”

I remembered that living room conversation during a crowded Saturday matinee of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The 59-year-old book by Harper Lee welcomed readers to her fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama. Readers familiarized themselves with Scout—her summers with her brother Jem and that weird boy Dill, her school life, and the kids’ limitless fantasies about their mysterious neighbor called Boo Radley. Out of 281 pages, the first 150 established the absolutes and simplicities that occupied Maycomb and, in her own retrospect, Scout’s thoughts.

Aaron Sorkin, playwright for the Broadway adaption, skimmed those first 150 pages. He did not ignore the ideas that ran through those pages. He chose not to lingeron them. The ideas were not as fleshed out, the price of what was already a two and half-hour theatrical experience. Young Scout (41-year-old Celia Kennan-Bolger), alongside Jem (Will Pullen) and the amusing Dill (Gideon Glick), danced around the stage and narrated these details while members of Maycomb and large mobile sets (such as high sections of fencing from the townspeople’s homes) swept across like a tornado of recounted memories.

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Scout, Jem and Dill did not walk around the stage so much as they ran and skipped and pushed each other out of the way. They did not speak; they yelled. They talked over each other when something was explained to the audience. Jem and Dill wrestled. A friend who joined me noted how on the Finch family’s front porch, Scout slouchedon the rocking chair, how she hunched her shoulders and pointed her feet inward.

The fun parts about coming of age lasted half an hour.

Then came the trial.

On Broadway, Mockingbirdis a legal drama. Though best known as the creator of The West Wingtelevision series, Sorkin is no stranger to courtrooms; he wrote A Few Good Men(the 1989 play, then the 1992 film), a story about a court-martial. He is uniquely qualified to write about the fabrics of American society. Sorkin pulled audiences back into 1930s Alabama, then boomeranged everyone back to modern day, to a state of uncertainty. On Broadway, Mockingbird was not just an adaption; it is a timely harsh reflection.

It’s Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller). He’s trash, a drunk and a racist. On stage, Bob voiced a newfound hatred for Jews, not present in Harper Lee’s novel. He started with the n-word, then labeled Atticus a “Jew lover,” and all of a sudden Bob Ewell seemed more familiar. On stage, Bob testified in an Alabama court, and yet America had also witnessed Bob Ewells in 2017, marching through Charlottesville with tiki torches and shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” I saw Bob Ewell in that friend of mine. He threatened to lynch a president, a very specific way to kill a man with a specific skin color.

Atticus: “You never really understand a person until you see things from his point of view.”

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Back on Broadway, Bob had also lost his job, Atticus explained. The single parent raised eight kids. The man felt inferior and powerless. He turned to something that gave him a sense of dominance and authority; Bob turned to the Klan; he took his anger out on Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), an African-American whom Bob falsely accused. Again, I thought of that friend of mine, a year and half deep into a dead marriage and unable to talk about it, perhaps too embarrassed of his situation; now let’s lynch Obama. Naturally.

This is not to sympathize with Bob Ewell or people like him. The character became less of a caricature. Ewell’s character evolved.

Harper Lee’s themes of racial injustice as well as our relationship with good and evil are just as relevant today, but twice as complicated. Hero Atticus Finch preached an uncompromising faith in the balance of good and evil in all people, even in Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi), but in a cynical age like today that faith prove hard to swallow, even for Atticus.

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Unique to the Broadway show, the Finch family’s long-time African-American maid, Calpernia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), challenged Atticus’s moral high ground during private exchanges not in Harper Lee’s book:

Atticus: “I don’t want them hating people they disagree with.”

Calpernia: “‘You gotta’ give Maycomb time, Cal. This isthe Deep South. You gotta’s give Maycomb time. Well, how much timewould Maycomb like?”

Words failed Atticus again later, when his arms wound around Bob Ewell in a headlock.Harper Lee’s estate disapproved of the character’s action. Even Atticus broke. Harper Lee’s philosophy missed something 59 years ago, almost like her publication was met by complete and utter apathy. The proof is in the courtroom.

Jeff Daniels stood at the stage’s edge, his back to the court, his gaze on a new jury: the audience.

Atticus: “Can’t go on like this. We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding … So, let’s hasten the change. Let’s hasten the end of the beginning. Let’s do it right now, in Maycomb. … Don’t do this! Let him go home. In the name of God, just let him go home.”

The trial ended. A bailiff handcuffed Tom Robinson, then walked him across the stage, to the electric chair. A silence hung in the theatre. It was a long, uncomfortable walk. My eyes looked away from Mr. Robinson and instead fell on the jury. The seats were empty. They had been empty for the entire play.

The curtains dropped. Applause thundered in the dark. When the lights turned on, up in our balcony seats, someone behind me noted to his colleague how it was sometimes difficult to understand Jeff Daniels’s Alabamian accent, something between a fast-talking auctioneer and a nasal congestion. It was a minor nitpick. In the two weeks that followed, the play still in my mind, Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbirdvery well may be the strongest of the story’s three mediums yet.

To Kill a Mockingbird continues its run at Shubert Theatre well into 2020. Jeff Daniels’s last bow will be on November 3rd, while Ed Harris will take on the role of Atticus Finch starting November 5th.


Chuck Cannini

Chuck Cannini read To Kill a Mockingbirdduring his sophomore year of high school. The then “wise” and “worldly” teenager was surprised that he enjoyed a “50 or whatever-year-old book.” His appreciation for the novel grew after he graduated with a B.F.A. in Creative Writing for Entertainment.