Monday, February 4, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch on Broadway

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now on Broadway in a production expertly helmed by Bartlett Sher, is only the latest of several stage adaptations of Harper Lee’s well-loved 1960 novel, but it may be the first one by a distinguished dramatic writer with a distinctive style. That turns out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. Sorkin has done a fine job of shaping the material dramatically. Instead of leaving it in the emotional point of view of the little girl, Scout Finch, he’s divided the narrative voice among the three children – Scout, her older brother Jem, and their summertime companion Dill (who is Jem’s best friend) – who witness the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping and beating a young white woman, and defended by Scout and Jem’s father Atticus. It’s effective because it operates simultaneously as a reminder that we’re watching the tale unfold through the eyes of impressionable kids – that it’s a coming-of-age story – and as a Brechtian device. The children take turns relaying the information to the audience as the play moves back and forth between Tom’s trial, which they view as spectators, and their lives in and around the Finch household, including their fascination with their reclusive, never-seen neighbor, Boo Radley. (In the book, Boo is also a source of terror, but Sorkin downplays that element in the service of dramatic economy.) Courtroom settings are notoriously static for stage plays; here the continual shift of focus solves the problem while the narrative jumping around feels right for a story related by young kids. Sorkin, who has an acute ear, extends the dialogue – much of it is straight from the novel – to translate Lee’s wry southern humor and folksiness, which can be as dry as a corn husk and as tart and stinging as bourbon. And he’s toughened up Atticus Finch (played by Jeff Daniels), who now has a surprising forcefulness when he’s cross-examining the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), and an even more surprising temper when he’s dealing with her vindictive father Bob (Frederick Weller).

Of course, Lee’s version of Atticus is different from one solidified in most people’s minds by Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1962 movie. Filmgoers loved Peck’s patient, virtuous, down-home Atticus so much that they projected him onto the actor, as you can see in the reverence the audience lathers on him when he’s interviewed in a public forum in Barbara Kopple’s 1999 A Conversation with Gregory Peck. The movie’s in love with him, too – with all that pearly wisdom and easygoing, aged-in-oak charm. Peck’s performance, which I think is peerlessly dull, is in sync with the director Robert Mulligan’s self-conscious poeticizing of the small Alabama town, Maycomb, and the Depression setting, and Scout’s coming of age. The black-and-white cinematography (by Russell Harlan) is gorgeous, but Mulligan lingers on every detail so that after a while you stop believing in them. And a lot of the acting is plain awful, especially James Anderson’s and Collin Wilcox’s as the father-and-daughter Ewells. (The best of it is by Phillip Alford as Jem and, though he’s glimpsed only at the end, a young Robert Duvall as Boo.) Sorkin and Sher aren’t going for nostalgia; the musicians at the two sides of the apron, Kimberly Grigsby on pump organ and Allen Tedder on guitar, playing the original score by Adam Guettel, evoke the time and place rather than varnishing the play with them. Sorkin and Sher are more interested in showmanship, and this Mockingbird is a hell of a show, gripping, occasionally fierce, and also beautifully staged and for the most part beautifully acted.

But Sorkin’s flaw has always been a controlling consciousness, a need to connect all the dots for his audience and make sure that we get the point. And in this case some of the points aren’t Harper Lee’s, which might not be a problem if hers weren’t more convincing. I don’t think that To Kill a Mockingbird is the great American novel it’s often made out to be; it’s not Faulkner, as you can see if you compare it to Faulkner’s 1948 Intruder in the Dust, another coming-of-age story focused on race that’s set in a small southern town, with another scene where one of the characters sits on the porch of the jail with the aim of holding off a lynch mob. (Presumably Lee is paying tribute to Faulkner.) What Lee wrote is perhaps most accurately described as the best young adult book ever published – extraordinarily skillful and finally extraordinarily touching. It’s a mistake for Sorkin to try to outsmart her, which is what he does when he turns Bob Ewell from a bitter, slovenly, misanthropic brute who slugs his daughter for making a pass at a black man and bullies her into claiming the man assaulted her to the voice of the disenfranchised southerner who’s still fighting the Civil War in his head. Sorkin’s Bob Ewell belongs to the KKK, though it’s hard to imagine him hanging around other men long enough to join any organization. What’s worse, when this version of Ewell accuses Atticus of condescending to him and sneers at him for being an intellectual, two words that would hardly be part of his vocabulary, he doesn’t sound like a dirt-poor farmer in 1934 Alabama who lives next to a dump; he sounds like a Trumpster. Why does Sorkin think that To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t be strong enough for today’s audience without (bogus) contemporary connections? And why does he believe that we need Atticus to throw it in Ewell’s face that he’s molested his own daughter? (Lee slips the insinuation into one sentence of Tom Robinson’s testimony; that’s all the book needs.)

Lee keeps the moralizing at a minimum. (There’s much more of it in Go Set a Watchman, about Atticus and Scout in the 1950s, which she wrote earlier but didn’t publish until 2015, the year before she died.) Sorkin uses the character of Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the Finches’ African American housekeeper, to ladle it on in the second act of the play. She’s the voice of the playwright – always a bad idea – and she’s not only Atticus's intellectual equal but easy enough in his presence to grapple with him and even mock him as no black woman would ever have dared to do in the Depression-era deep south. When Atticus preaches to his kids and to Dill that you have to walk around in a man’s skin before you can make a judgment on him, Cal argues that some of the locals he insists on humanizing in his own mind are really just racist monsters. That includes Mrs. Dubose (Phyllis Somerville), the mean-mouthed neighbor lady whose insults about Atticus when he takes Tom Robinson’s case so outrage Jem that he takes out his anger on her begonia plant. Lee uses the Mrs. Dubose subplot as a lesson for Jem in seeing beneath the surface: when his father makes him apologize to her and she punishes him by making him read to her, he discovers that her ugly temperament disguises a heroic fight with a painful cancer. Sorkin eliminates the lesson and lets Cal get the last word on Mrs. Dubose: that she was always a racist and her illness doesn’t mitigate her nastiness. At moments like these, he’s like those book critics dealing with material about racism or sexism who make sure to register moral outrage at the offenses catalogued in the book so the reader will appreciate their virtue.

Weller can’t transcend the problems in the rewriting of his character, and though he’s a very good actor, he’s stylized in a peculiarly contemporary way that undermines his authenticity. The only other member of the cast who’s not well served by the writing (and in this case, perhaps the direction as well) is Stark Sands as the prosecutor, Horace Gilmer, whose cross-examination of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is so tinged with bigotry that it makes Dill (in the book it’s Jem) sick to his stomach. There has to be a way to play this scene so that Gilmer doesn’t come across as practically demonic. Dakin Matthews brings a deal of wit to the role of Judge Taylor, who hands the case to Atticus and presides over it with a combination of humor and common sense. Neal Huff, whom I loved on stage in last season’s revival of The Iceman Cometh and on screen in Spotlight, understates affectingly in the role of Link Deas, branded as the town drunk, whose sympathy for Tom Robinson goes back to his childhood, when he lost the use of his arm in an accident in Link’s mill. Erin Wilhelmi manages to articulate Mayella’s hysteria without ever overplaying it – a genuine feat – while Akinnagbe gets inside Tom’s kindness and honesty, a combination that ultimately dooms the character. Danny McCarthy, another Iceman alumnus, has the ideal plain-spoken quality for the part of the sheriff, Heck Tate, and in his few moments as Boo Radley, Danny Wolohan’s withdrawn physicality bespeaks a paralyzed sweetness. Ann Roth’s costumes, perfect expressions of character without commenting on them (her specialty), fit the restrained style of most of these actors.

Daniels is so well cast as Atticus that it’s possible to undervalue the subtleties in his performance, but this incarnation of the character, passionate about reason, is the one that deserves to be remembered. Sher has cast three young adult actors in the roles of the three children, which sounds like a tricky proposition, and it might be with another director and without actors as good as Will Pullen (Jem), Gideon Glick (Dill) and especially the gifted Celia Keenan-Bolger (Scout). Glick does a lot with Dill’s kinetic energy and his instinctual theatricality; in its way this performance is as stylized as Weller’s, but it really works. Miriam Buether, the remarkable English scenic artist who designed The Jungle and last season’s revival of Three Tall Women, devised a clever and pragmatic set that moves in and out of the courtroom and the Finch house (and other locations) with startling economy. Sher’s staging makes admirable use of every area and perspective she has given him.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Benanti, and Allan Corduner in My Fair Lady. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Since I saw Sher’s Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady early in its run, it’s undergone a number of significant cast changes, so I thought I’d take the occasion of my New York trip to see To Kill a Mockingbird to check in on his other Broadway show. An excuse, I admit it – I love the production and wanted an excuse to sit through it again. It’s in thrillingly great shape. Harry Hadden-Paton hadn’t fully inhabited the role of Henry Higgins when it first opened, but he’s grown into it; it’s hard to envision a better rendition of “I’m an Ordinary Man,” which is so inventively frantic in the eruptive choruses that he reminded me of Wile E. Coyote at the zenith of his exasperation. Hadden-Paton has added an emotional complexity to some of the scenes with Eliza (beginning with “The Rain in Spain” number): the character’s misogyny and his confirmed bachelorhood, as he likes to put it, are in tension with the part of him that allows him to be touched by her. (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” may be a revelation for Henry, but it isn’t, quite, for us.) Laura Benanti, who has followed Lauren Ambrose into the role of Eliza, may be partly responsible for this new layer. Her Eliza is warm, longing, tremulous, right on the brink of a womanly engagement with the world. Like Ambrose, she’s very funny but in different ways – more ironic, more grounded. Ambrose brought an almost eccentric impatient curiosity to the part that I’d never seen before, and you saw her grow up; Benanti’s Eliza may need seasoning, the veneer of gracious civilization, but she’s already a grown-up. Both these actresses have taken an approach to the character that is overflowing with feeling, but not the same kinds of feeling. Benanti’s Eliza even has affection to spare for her sloppy rapscallion of a father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Sher perennial Danny Burstein, a fine replacement for Norbert Leo Butz). She and Hadden-Paton are so good together that they almost pull off the final moment Sher has hooked onto the last scene – almost. I was underwhelmed once more by Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering, and the current Freddy, Christian Dante White, does so many things with his face during “On the Street Where You Live” that I focused on the set instead (which, given the work of designer Michael Yeargan, is pretty easy to do). White has an impressive voice, but – just as he did when he stepped into the role of Cornelius in Hello, Dolly! – he’s a compulsive embroiderer. At the other end of the spectrum, Rosemary Harris, who has taken over for the estimable Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, is sublime – and the warmth of her performance matches Benanti’s. Harris finds so many colors in her lines that her scenes seem to expand as you watch. And sometimes it’s not just her lines: when Henry reports, in the penultimate scene of the musical, that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do now that Eliza has walked out on him, the pause Harris takes after he rushes out and before her last line, “Bravo, Eliza,” is as eloquent as the line reading itself, filled with as much sadness and alarm as admiration. God, what an actress – and what a show.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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