Review: Broadway in Austin’s To Kill a Mockingbird

They had me at Sorkin

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Melanie Moore as Scout Finch in the touring To Kill a Mockingbird (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

When I first heard, in early 2016, that an adaptation of Harper Lee’s benchmark novel To Kill a Mockingbird was heading for the Broadway stage, it did not take much convincing to know that the play would be brilliant. They had me at Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin is the fellow who wrote/created TV’s smartest, most acerbic dramas (Sports Night, The West Wing, The Newsroom), and has had some success of late on Broadway as well (A Few Good Men, The Farnsworth Invention). To Kill a Mockingbird broke box office records when it opened in 2018 and earned nine Tony Award nominations. It went on tour in 2022 and, now, this remarkable piece of storytelling has landed on our doorstep for a very brief stay.

For those who grew up in a part of Texas where the Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t taught in middle-school, To Kill a Mockingbird offers us attorney Atticus Finch – one of the most heralded and heroic characters in the American literary canon. The author has Finch defend an African American man, Tom Robinson, after he is wrongly accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman in Depression Era Alabama. By doing so, Atticus finds himself combating the community’s deeply entrenched racism and, for the greater good, knowingly, willingly alienates himself and his family from their friends and neighbors.

Sorkin’s adaptation pushes further on hot-topic issues than Lee was able to while writing in the 1960s. He pushed so hard that he was sued by Lee's estate for taking too many editorial liberties, which he absolutely does and with great effect. He beefs up the small roles given to black characters (a powerful and poignant Yaegel T. Welch and Jacqueline Williams, as Robinson and Atticus’s household maid Calpurnia, respectively) and better represents their perspective. And he casts a weary eye over the book’s idealistic portrayal of Atticus (Richard Thomas, who is astounding in the role). Lee presented as virtues the character’s belief in the nobility of all human beings – “there’s good in everyone,” he says – and his ability to empathize with even the most vile racists and hardened hearts in town. Sorkin boldly presents them as flaws.

Sorkin’s adaptation pushes further on hot-topic issues than Lee was able to while writing in the 1960s.
While Lee took her time getting to the courtroom, Sorkin plunges right in, pulls right out, and returns to it throughout the production, all the while building toward the dramatic outcome. He also tells the story through the innocent and intelligent eyes of Atticus’ young daughter Scout (an always engaging Melanie Moore), who is abetted by her brother Jeb and friend Dill (the superb Justin Mark and understudy Morgan Bernhard, respectively, who handle Sorkin’s well-placed humor with aplomb). Sorkin knows full well the power of breaking the fourth wall and directly engaging an audience, which these characters do throughout the production.

They also had me at Bartlett Sher, whose directorial attention to detail and ability to bring energy and dimension to any script is evident in recent revivals of classic musicals on Broadway, such as South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof. His vision for To Kill a Mockingbird – a minimalist and highly atmospheric staging of the work that helps turn the script into the memory play that Sorkin had in mind – has been beautifully executed by designers Miriam Buether (scenic) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting). The largely wooden set pieces that function as mere suggestions of a small town, and the golden-brown sepia tones that reinforce the time and place of this story, have been nicely transferred to the national tour.

Perhaps Sorkin and Sher’s greatest contribution can be found in their assemblage of this large ensemble of experienced actors who fully inhabit their roles and appear to appreciate the play they’re in and the people who put it together. There’s a gravitas that flows off the stage like a wave of dry ice that quickly fills the Bass Concert Hall. To experience that level of emotional investment by everyone concerned is worth the price of admission alone.

Broadway in Austin’s To Kill a Mockingbird 

Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, 512-471-2787
Through May 14
Running time: 3 hrs.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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