New adaptation is stinging, laughing, provocative, soul-nourishing, not-to-miss theater
Review by Martha Heimberg
Yes we can. Remember Obama’s brave optimism?
Well? Can we? Can we sew up the “bleeding wound” of racial discrimination and abandon the stupid, destructive myth of white supremacy? Salvage our body of unity still somehow struggling to be a democracy in these so-called United States of America? Is there still hope?
That’s the question at the pulsing heart of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant, Tony-winning 2018 adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic 1962 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of a black man falsely accused of rape by a white girl in rural Alabama in 1934. Now, Broadway Dallas has brought the national touring production to the Music Hall at Fair Park, the first play that’s not a musical they’ve presented there since 2017. What a perfect choice. The diverse, packed-house audience on opening night laughed and applauded and held their collective breaths together for 2 hours and 45 minutes. Go. Feel the tense suspense of courthouse scenes, the bravado of daring kids, the ugly brutality rising from race-based fear and the astonishing power of honesty and dignity to somehow keep hope for the future glimmering.
Maybe you read the book or saw the Gregory Peck movie years ago or watched the worn adaptation that played in theaters and high schools for eons. Sorkin’s adaptation, directed smartly by Bartlett Sher, keeps the heart of the novel but refreshes the focus on ominous issues we still face decades later.
Atticus Finch (ever -optimistic, hopelessly naive Richard Thomas of The Waltons TV series fame ) is a poor, highly principled small-town title lawyer who “gets paid in vegetables,” as he tells the town judge (keen-eyed David Manis) when he’s asked to try a criminal case. A widower with two kids, Thomas’ Atticus’s belief that all people are “fundamentally good” and his committed respect for even the nastiest old man makes his offspring proud and yet doubtful of his eyesight. Thomas is a terrific actor. Atticus’s famous closing courtroom speech drew noisy, stop-the show applause opening night.
Atticus does defend Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch, reprising his role from the Broadway production), a black man, so clearly morally and physically innocent of rape and assault accusations, that we can read his honesty in his strong, humble bearing and powerful dignity from the moment Atticus meets him in jail. Welch’s quiet front-and-center presence in all courtroom scenes is a charged reminder that a human life is at stake. Here and throughout the play, the lofty ideal of the court of law as somehow the seat of some holy justice is especially spooky considering the recent stories of Clarence Thomas and the bought-and-paid-for Supreme Court rulings that turn a deaf ear to pleading constituents. Welch is riveting in his testimony scene where he bravely tells the whole truth. We feel Tom’s pain, but also his deeper pity as he looks at his thin, desperate accuser. At that moment, goodness triumphed for me as a witness, because I saw what it costs to honor truth. Could I do that?
Fortunately, high-minded Atticus’s longtime black housekeeper Calpurnia (forthright, tough-loving Jacqueline Williams) is more realistic about the depth of human goodness, having lived life as a black woman in the same town these many years. When Atticus speaks of maintaining civility and respect for liars and child-beaters, she says, “Think about who you disrespect,” as she closes the screen door and steps back in the house. With earthy humor and strict rules, this woman has held his household together, and he values her opinion. She knows Atticus is a good man, but when he urges everybody to “step into the skin” of those accusing people and feel their fear and hardship, Williams pauses, looks up into the clouds, arranges her apron and says, “Let me see if I can relate to that.” She gets one of the many belly laughs in this show that finds just the right place to distance us long enough for a smile or chuckle.
Joey Collins is a hell of a villain, the putrid slime of the earth, as Bob Ewell, the illiterate, dead-eyed father of Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki), the eldest of his seven children, left with taking care of her motherless, hungry siblings while her jobless pa drinks what he can beg or borrow and comes home to take out his misery on whoever. Collins’s drawling threats of “one tree and two ropes’ ‘ don’t scare Atticus. Neither do the hooded Ku Klux Klan members gathered at night in a chilling scene set behind the jailhouse where Atticus keeps watch.
Stucki’s Mayella is pure wretchedness, so scared of her mean-assed daddy that she’s literally bent out of shape, her narrow shoulders huddled into her tall, thin frame as she takes the stand to tell the lie that turns the brutal wheel. Then she throws back her stringy, blonde hair and rages like the madwoman she is, pointing to Tom, the only person who ever tried to give her a helping hand with chores.
The children, who act as narrators and also step into scenes, are played skillfully by adult actors. Atticus’ bright tomboy daughter Scout Finch (Melanie Moore) is all over the stage and into the curious-girls-go-for-it role. During the thoughtful, loving talks with her father on the porch swing, Moore’s pert, energetic Scout leans into her hero dad, her legs sprawled, head happily on his shoulder. Justin Mark’s Jem Finch grows throughout the play, from his sister’s willing accomplice to a manly wanna-be colleague of the father he adores. Their friend Dill Harris was played on opening night by Daniel Neale, who always enters skipping and eager to hug Jem. This pretty, tale-telling boy is clearly gay, and he’s keeping other secrets.
The entire ensemble is tightly focused and present, and keeps us right with them, through speedy shifts of scene and set, handsomely designed by Miriam Buether and dramatically lit by Jennifer Tipton. Ann Roth’s costumes evoke the era and the character. Adam Guettel’s original music, directed by Kimberly Grigsby, is designed to set the mood between scenes, but comes across as overkill. Still, what a resonant, beautifully performed and urgent play.
When Calpurnia hears the news of Tom’s violent fate, she exhales and says, “Well, they say what don’t kill us makes us stronger. But what about what kills us?” Voices everywhere are rising to answer that question.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through May 28 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. For tickets, go to broadwaydallas.org or call 800-653-8000.