The playbill announces “Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird,” but, truth be told, it's really Aaron Sorkin's Mockingbird. Academy Award and Emmy-winning writer Sorkin (films: A Few Good Men, The Social Network; TV: The West Wing; Broadway: Camelot revival that opened last month) took on the challenge to write a new version of Lee's iconic 1960 novel, itself a beloved 1962 Academy Award-winner with Gregory Peck's classic portrayal of small-town lawyer Atticus Finch defending an innocent black man accused of rape in the deepest racist south: Macon, Alabama, 1934.
The first stage version, penned by Christopher Sergel and premiered in 1991, had been the standard for decades among regional and school theaters. A reverie of sorts, it's narrated by Finch's neighbor Maudie instead of Finch's tomboy daughter Scout, as in the novel and film. This focus steered the play away from the first-person portrayal to an outside observer's view. It was tremendously successful but hardly perfect.
So when Broadway and Hollywood impresario Scott Rudin approached Lee for an update, she concurred. Lawsuits upon lawsuits followed; Rudin was canceled for bullying behavior; and at one point Lee's estate sued Sorkin and Rudin for ruining the book. Eventually everyone settled down, edits were agreed to, and the Sorkin adaptation opened on Broadway to rave reviews in 2018 and recouped its reported cost of $7.5 million in four months, repeatedly shattering box office records for a straight play. Sergel's play was banned except under stringent restrictions.
Starring Jeff Daniels and an incandescent Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, who received a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress, Sorkin's Broadway play ran headlong into COVID and the shuttering of all theaters in 2020. The play reopened in 2021, but the resurgence of the pandemic closed it again. When Broadway resumed, the audience wasn't there. Rudin, no longer involved in the production but who still controlled the rights, suddenly pulled the plug citing dwindling revenue amid rising production costs. But the national tour went forward, and this is the version now playing through April 30 at the Hobby Center. It's not perfect either.
Although starring beloved TV icon and Emmy-winning Richard Thomas (John-Boy in The Waltons) who's also a Broadway veteran (The Little Foxes, 12 Angry Men, Incident at Vichy) and directed by multiple Tony Award-winning golden boy Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, My Fair Lady, The King and I), Mockingbird is oddly misdirected. It's not Sher, whose work is fluidity deluxe and almost musical, it's Sorkin who disappoints.
He has turned Finch, a saintly widower who conceals his masculinity under a soft paternal cover, into just a soft paternal cover. His mantra now is: Everybody has some good in them. When applied against the racist bigots he confronts in his small town, even his rambunctious children balk at his timid acquiescence. Sorkin has changed Finch and brought him butting against today's attitudes. This is a most contemporary take, as if guilty white liberals must be made aware of their failings. By the end of the play, complicit in exonerating the white murderer next door, we can't really tell if Atticus has changed his tune and seen his shortcomings. This isn't Gregory Peck territory anymore. The tarnished halo has slipped.
The children Scout, Jem, and Dill are played by adults (Melanie Moore, Justin Mark, Steven Lee Johnson – all very good) which doesn't do any harm, and the arc of Lee's story is still there; but the moral compass is off, if not out of focus. No longer is this a summer reverie where innocent children grow up fast in the face of racism and outright hatred by neighbors who seem so nice. Sorkin turns the humid southern remembrance into a crime procedural right from the start, weaving the trial of Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch – powerful) throughout. He cuts to the chase before we've seen the horses.
Sorkin excises one of the most potent scenes in both book and movie. His kids think he's a bit of a wimp, who always uses intellect and psychology to talk his way out of trouble instead of taking action. But when a rabid dog roams the neighborhood, Atticus grabs his WWI rifle and shots the cur dead in one shot. The children are stunned at the violence and the accuracy in him. Their esteem grows immeasurably.
And perhaps the most emotional scene is after the trial, when innocent Robinson is found guilty by a jury of white townsfolk. Atticus walks out of the courtroom and the entire balcony of blacks stands up in silent appreciation. “Stand up,” whispers housekeeper Calpurnia, “your daddy's passing.” The scene lasts but a minute, but it's ferociously moving. Sorkin cuts this too, diminishing Atticus' dignity and stature in the community. Sorkin goes out of his way to belittle our protagonist and turn him into Lee's cranky and racist younger Finch in her posthumous Go Set a Watchman, a prequel to Mockingbird that Lee never wanted published.
To his credit, Sorkin has beefed up the roles of Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) and Robinson, making them the salient voices of indignant impatience. When Atticus argues that Macon needs more time to overcome its inherent racism, the wry and nagging housekeeper rebuts with, “How much time would Macon like?”
Thomas is remarkable as no-longer-saintly Atticus Finch, yet in turns decent, somewhat noble, inherently good. His cross-examination of ignorant Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki) who has falsely accused Tom but has in fact been brutally attacked by her father (Joey Collins), one of theater's vilest characters, is wondrously paced. Thomas's increasing outrage is thrillingly theatrical as he accosts us directly as if we're the jury. But overall, Sorkin constantly trips him up, making him less not more.
Among the 30 actors in the cast, watch for the cantankerous biddy old neighbor Mrs. Henry Dubois, who gets her comeuppance from Jem when he batters her beloved magnolia bush with Scout's baton. Sixty-two years ago, Mary Badham wondrously portrayed Scout in the iconic movie and earned an Academy Award nomination.
Miriam Buether's gray set, looking like an unused and weary warehouse, springs to life with pieces that slide in from the wings or glide down from the flies – a tree branch, a roof, the front porch with slamming screen door, the pews of a church, the courtroom, all minimal but effective under Jennifer Tipton's shimmering summer lighting, or amber glow from the shaded floor lamp when Atticus is confronted by the KKK outside the jailhouse. Ann Roth's fragrant costumes bespeak honeysuckle and, equally, the grime and sweat of Alabama backwater farms.
Sorkin's adaptation loudly whispers with specters of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, bringing this Depression era drama smack into our face with a sting. Whether Lee's classic tale needs such updating is debatable. But the bones of her story are there; the children are irrepressible; and Atticus Finch still stands, somewhat bent and frayed, but always the most gallant and true man in town.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues through April 30 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Broadway at the Hobby, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-315-2400 or visit houston.broadway.com. $40-$150.