'Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD' by Aaron Sorkin The Touring Company
Now onstage at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre
Julieta Cervantes. Pictured Richard Thomas and Melanie Moore
“Ontario Boards of Education need to re-think their position on excluding Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from school curricula. This fine touring production of Aaron Sorkin’s new play of the ‘slice-of-life’ American classic still speaks volumes about racial inequalities and social justice. Some wonderful performances that are not to be missed.”
Directed by Bartlett Sher with gentle compassion and empathetic kindness, Aaron Sorkin’s fresh perspective script of the iconic ‘slice-of-life’ small-town Americana in the southern United States rolls into Toronto for a short run until November 27. This touring production returns to Mirvish at the end of May/beginning of June 2024 for another run.
Please get tickets for it.
It’s a vital story that still speaks volumes about racial inequalities and social justice for twenty-first-century audiences. Parents, if your child’s school has removed the book from the curriculum for whatever reason, please take him/her/them to this production.
Based on Miss Lee’s novel, Sorkin’s script is set in Maycomb, Alabama, in the early 1930s, just after the Depression began. Principal narrator Scout Finch (Melanie Moore), her older brother Jem/Jeremy Atticus (Justin Mark) and their childhood friend Dill/Charles Baker Harris (Steven Lee Johnson) break the fourth wall periodically and talk to the audience. At one point, Scout is an adult when she speaks to the audience. We learn of the childhood games the three youngsters played years ago. One of them was trying to make their unseen and scary neighbour Boo/Arthur Radley (Ian Bedford) come out of his house.
The young characters refer to the time Jem broke his arm years ago on account of a horrific attack he and Scout endured. Scout, Jem, and Dill believe this incident and several others within the town stemmed from Tom Robinson’s (Yaegel T. Welch) unfair trial, where he was accused of rape by Mayella Ewell (Mariah Lee) and her father, Bob (Ted Koch).
Scout and Jem’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas), is asked by Judge Taylor (Jeff Still) to defend Tom. Atticus is aware of Maycomb’s usual disease of prejudice that runs rampant throughout the town. Even though he knows Tom will be found guilty, Atticus takes the case and does his best for his client because it is the right thing to do. Taking on Tom’s case will also show Scout and Jem an essential message about courage – “it’s knowing when you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through, no matter what.”
Sorkin’s new production does not follow the novel's linear presentation of plot events. Some have been altered for dramatic effect. I couldn’t help but connect to the terrific production of Christopher Sergel’s dramatization of the novel at the Stratford Festival a few years ago under Nigel Shawn Williams’ direction. That production also introduced Scout breaking the fourth wall and contained one of the most exciting, yet frightening moments captured live on stage – the night Scout and Jem were attacked on their way home from the pageant.
What makes Sorkin’s new production of this classic story work if you did not see the Stratford version? Most importantly, is Sorkin’s script worth seeing and doing?
To answer the former, the performances are the reason to see this fine play. To answer the latter, yes, Sorkin’s script is worth seeing and doing.
Although the production clocks in at three hours, the pacing never seems to drag. The cast moves Scenic Designer Miriam Buether’s set pieces with fluidity and ease. Ann Roth’s costumes are faithful recreations of the Depression era and help delineate the social class structure within Maycomb. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design assist in creating specific emotional effects especially when Boo/Arthur Radley (Ian Bedford) is introduced near the end of the story.
Richard Thomas is remarkable as Atticus Finch. His final address to the jury (where we learn the significance of the title) before it goes to deliberate Tom’s fate still packs a wallop of a punch. Thomas gallantly delivers it with dignity and class. Those moments he shares with Melanie Moore as the young Scout are touching. Moore nicely captures an introspective precociousness of childhood innocence in her performance as Scout, as do Justin Mark and Steven Lee Johnson in their work as Jem and Dill.
Jacqueline Williams as the Finch housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Yaegel T. Wilson as Tom Robinson deliver poignant work. Williams and Thomas remain in harmonious synchronicity and respect with each other as the adult role models within the Finch household. When she tells Scout she likes what she sees when she looks at her, the line is delivered with care and love that it brought tears to my eyes. Wilson’s first-rate work as the wronged man unjustly accused of a horrible crime remains one of the highlights. He delivers his courtroom testimony with genuine conviction that it is still hard to see how anyone could find this man guilty.
As Bob and Mayella Ewell, Ted Koch and Mariah Lee thankfully do not appear as the story's proverbial ‘bad guys.’ Instead, as Atticus says, Koch and Lee carefully zero in on moments where they are to be pitied for what life has thrown at them. They both make their testimony credibly sound as if they have been rehearsed by their prosecuting and racist lawyer, Horace Gilmer (Christopher R. Ellis). However, that does not give the father and daughter the unforgivable right to do what they did in accusing a sympathetic and caring man of something he did not do.
Another highlight of this performance and for this portion of the tour is seeing Mary Badham’s work as morphine addict, Mrs. Dubose. Badham was the original Scout nominated for an Academy Award in the film version of ‘Mockingbird’ opposite Gregory Peck. Badham utters some horrible things as the suffering woman that are extremely tough to hear in knowing her work from the film.
Contextually, though, these words are grim reminders of a time when intolerant mentality prevailed in southern US society. The only thing I did wish from this production was Jem’s timed reading to Mrs. Dubose to help cure her addiction to the painkiller. That message about learning courage and knowing when, as Atticus says, “you’re licked before you begin, but you do anyway and see it through no matter what” is lost.
Final Comments: Although I’m not one to make comments about latecomers to the theatre, this time I feel as if I must. Future audiences, the evening performances begin at 7:30 pm. Please check your tickets. Granted, I can accept if people are 5-10 minutes late on account of traffic. However, it was about 30 minutes into the show and I was paying careful attention to the performance when five people came to their seats.
My guest and I had to stand up to allow these people in.
What’s frustrating? Not only did we lose our concentration and attention for that brief moment, so did the audience members behind us when we had to stand and let these people in.
There, rant over. I won’t mention it again.
Please get tickets for this touring production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Call or check daily to see if rush tickets are available or if there are any cancellations.
I may just return in May/ June to see it.
Running time: approximately three hours with one intermission.
The production runs until November 27, then returns May 28, and runs to June 2, 2024 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street. For tickets, visit mirvish.com.
‘HARPER LEE’S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’
A New Play by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Scenic Designer: Miriam Buether
Costume Designer: Ann Roth
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Director: Kimberly Grigsby
Production Stage Manager: Eric H. Mayer
Company Manager: Katie Cortez
Performers: Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore, Jacqueline Williams, Justin Mark, Yaegel T. Welch, Steven Lee Johnson, Ted Koch, Jeff Still, Christopher R. Ellis, Melanie Lee, Travis Johns, Greg Wood, Anne-Marie Cusson, Ian Bedford, Lance Baker, Stephen Cefalu, Jr. Denise Cormier, Rae Gray, Greg Jackson, Joey Labrasca, David Andrew Morton, Andre Ozim, Dorcas Sowunmi and Mary Badham.