Surprisingly, this was Deeply Disappointing!
First, let me acknowledge that I am a rabid fan of The West Wing TV Series (1999-2006) and fully recognize that the genius behind both the concept AND its first four seasons rests primarily with writer Aaron Sorkin.
Second, I believe Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most compelling American novels I’ve ever read — full of Southern complexity, soulful and rich characters, riveting drama and with that kind of sweet humor only a child can generate.
And, finally, I have watched the 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham, many MANY times and each time find it retains the same dramatic power it had more than 50 years ago.
So, then, you can only imagine how excited I was to see a contemporary Broadway version, adapted by Sorkin!
And there IS some good news:
• Most performances are strong (Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, Will Pullen as Jem, Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom Robinson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia, Erin Wilhelmi as Mayella Ewell, and others), though I have never been a huge fan of Actor Jeff Daniels (the biggest name in this Broadway cast playing Atticus Finch). The southern accent he affected struck me as awkward. And his characterization uneven.
• The sets are imaginatively evocative of Depression-era 1930s Alabama.
• Unlike the film and book, where events unfold chronologically, the Broadway adaptation puts the rape trial up front and uses flashbacks to fill in other storylines.
• Some of Sorkin’s efforts to make the 1960 novel more palatable for today’s audiences (that is, less racially charged) work. For example, providing Defendant Tom Robinson with more of a voice in telling his own story. Or, making the Finch family’s housekeeper Calpurnia much sassier.
BUT, honestly, by the end, the production felt much more like a typical Sorkin made-for-TV episode than a faithful recounting of Harper Lee’s story. Most of her brilliant voice is absent.
If you’re familiar with Sorkin’s techniques, you can just imagine. Lots of people talking over one another. An over-supply of glib humor peppered throughout. But most damaging, no faith in the audience’s ability to figure anything out on its own.
Instead, Sorkin adds lengthy monologues (particularly during the last 15 minutes of the production) – by white characters, mostly Atticus – lecturing about the need for justice in the United States and the urgency of addressing the issue of racism. (Get it! It’s still an issue in 2019.) To me, these points are all made much more skillfully and subtly by Lee’s original text, without turning Atticus into Sorkin’s personal mouthpiece. (Yet ANOTHER East Coast elitist white male assessing the state of racism in America.)
Same for Sorkin’s references to antisemitism. Unnecessary and out of place! Certainly, an important concern. But watching Bob Ewell accuse Atticus Finch of being part Jewish simply comes out of left field (NOT part of the original book.) And, in my opinion, detracts from the focus on race in America. Someone in authority really should have insisted that Sorkin not use this particular vehicle for his own personal rants — even if he is considered an Entertainment Industry Wunderkind.
I could go on. But I will close by saying that it was definitely NOT worth $150 per ticket (for seats 3/4ths of the way up the steep balcony). Bottom line, I still remain somewhat of a Sorkin fan. But a much wiser one.
If you’re interested, here’s the New York Times Review of the Broadway adaptation.
Partial List of Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Accomplishments:
A Few Good Men (1992)
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network (2010)
Steve Jobs (2015)