Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of literature, a masterpiece of film-making, and now, under the power of playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher, it is a masterpiece of theatricality. The beauty of this piece is that it reveals the material to be both timeless and timely. That it does so as a memory play and courtroom drama only serves as a stark reminder that history seems to be repeating itself over and over again. That it does so with a heady mix of vicious, inflammatory language and a surprising amount of humor and moral heart (sans didactic preaching) makes it remarkably entertaining and gripping.
There is something so quaint and so American about the way this play is presented from the barn red wooden wall that separates us from the action to the set pieces that slide in and out or are pushed into place by the company. Miriam Buether's dreamlike suggestive design is grounded by specific pieces that the mind will recall years later (a specific phone on a specific hall table on a nondescript platform, for example) and represents the pillars of American culture: the single-family home, complete with front porch, and that great institution, a courtroom. Oh, and a prison. Similarly, Ann Roth's nostalgic costumes hit just the right notes of familiarity and striking specificity (generic overalls and cotton dresses versus frightening KKK hoods made from sacks and pillowcases), while Jennifer Tipton's amber tinged lighting at times makes it feel as though we are seeing everything through a sepia toned haze, and at others with a harsh revealing light (the scenes on the Finch porch vs the scenes in the courtroom).
|Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch
It speaks volumes (no pun intended) that the silent ensemble delivers equally riveting performances as the main cast. They are so much more than scenery movers and observers; they offer a master class in being "present" and maintaining specifically drawn members of the Maycomb, Alabama community. Others have small speaking roles that create dynamic moments that should galvanize everyone in the room. Case in point: Phyllis Sommerville's riveting portrayal of deep-seeded prejudice in the white upper crust in the person of the Finch's elderly neighbor. Then there's the insidious power that comes from hiding behind a hood and the disgrace of cowardice exposed when the hood comes off, poignantly played by Danny Wolohan.
|LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia
Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch
Dakin Matthews' liberal leaning judge reminds me of a shot of Southern Comfort - a sharp delivery, followed by a slow burn and a final smooth smile. He's a delight. It was nice, too, to see a dramatic, unsympathetic side to Stark Sands' acting repertoire. Watching his character degrade another human being, red-faced and spitting mad is beyond uncomfortable, made all the more so by taking place in a courtroom. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, as the benevolent, tired Finch housekeeper, powerfully delivers a series of truth bombs in act two garnering some very cathartic applause from the moved audience. As defendant and symbol of racial injustice Tom Robinson, Gbenga Akinnagbe makes an award-worthy debut, wisely avoiding the scenery chewing route and letting the material do the heavy lifting.
|Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout
Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch
There is so much to admire in this beautiful production, from the source material to the adaptation, from the design to the direction, from the ensemble to the supporting cast. But To Kill a Mockingbird simply would not work without a perfect Atticus Finch. Jeff Daniels is just that. This is a quiet, humble, profoundly intense tour de force performance. Daniels nails the Southern charm and balances it perfectly with quiet liberalism and a fierce righteousness that is both fearsome and inspiring. This is a performance that people will talk about for years to come.
This is a play people will talk about for years to come. Don't miss this one.
(Photos by J. Cervantes, J. Kyler)