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  • Nate Adams

'To Kill a Mockingbird' review: Aaron Sorkin breathes new life into Harper Lee classic

Courtesy of Broadway in Detroit


Making its Michigan premiere at The Fisher theater, the touring production of the Broadway smash “To Kill a Mockingbird,” adapted by Aaron Sorkin from the novel by Harper Lee, manages to reframe the 1960 classic under a new lens while also enhancing a generational story everyone has read at least once in their life. That’s not easy to do when you consider how iconic and cherished the original source material is for so many people across the world. But if anyone could attempt to spruce up the narrative framework and make interesting departures from what is expected of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it would be Sorkin, who, thanks to his contributions to weighty courtroom dramas, “A Few Good Men,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” seems tailor made for this moment. 


Set in Maycomb, Alabama, 1934, the story, of course, follows small-town lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas - delivering one hellacious performance) who is taped to defend the falsely accused Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) against a deeply prejudiced justice system. The story is told through the perspective of Atticus’ children, Scout, and Jem (an excellent Maeve Moynihan, and Justin Mark) and their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson - unforgettable). 


Unlike the novel, this new version flips the script and, rather than having Scout be the main protagonist, gives more emphasis and character enhancement to Atticus, who goes through quite the transformation. The hallmarks of Lee’s novel-the morality of good versus evil, institutional racism, and the destruction of innocence-are all here, and yet the decision by Sorkin (working with direction by Bartlett Sher) to gently tweak Finch’s character (at one point, we see him get into a physical altercation - a major swerve from the novel), but also side characters like the “town drunk” Link Deas (Greg Wood) or Dill ends up being a massive gamble that pays off.


Watching the story get woven together under the energetic narration of Scout, Jem, and Dill is a nice touch as it not only allows the actors, wisely played by adults and not children, the freedom in exploring the space, it adds a more critical (and mature) comprehension of the story as it presents the facts of Tom Robinson’s case (this plot device also allows for some welcome comedic relief amid the story’s tough subject matter). And for a nearly three-hour production that can’t fall back on vibrant musical numbers (there is, however, a soothing score peppered underneath the action) it never drags. The courtroom sequences are staged with gravitas and feature one tense and gripping testimonial after another. It’s one thing to read these excerpts on the page, but it’s another watching it come to rip-roaring life on the stage. 


As Finch, Thomas brings an earnest sincerity to one of literary history's most esteemed characters and hits every syllable with clear and concise diction; Moynihan is a wonderful addition playing his headstrong daughter Scout, performances from Mariah Lee, playing Mayella Ewell are captivating; Yagel T. Welch leans into the gentle, harmless demeanor of Tom Robinson; Ted Koch hits several nerves playing the villainous racist Bob Ewell; Steven Lee Johnson almost steals the show as the warm-hearted and immensely easy-to-root-for Dill; while Greg Wood makes a major impression as Link Deas, and Jacqueline Williams is perfect as Calpurnia. 

In the end, this production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” challenges the original in ways the previous versions did not. It questions the morals of Atticus and his willingness to overlook the questionable (and inherently racist) acts of his community and suggests that some folks, like Bob Ewell, who threatens to lynch him and Tom Robinson, may be passed the point of forgiveness. What we’re left with is a new (and bold) reincarnation of Atticus Finch, one who must grapple with the consequences of taking the moral high ground and one who must decide which justice is worth fighting for.


Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD continues through March 17th at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit. Tickets can be purchased here.


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