Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (Sorkin) by touring company
by Brian Paul Scipione
Having reviewed quite a few new Broadway plays, I have gotten pretty used to seeing that such-and-such a production has won four, five, six, seven, or a gazillion Tony Awards. It is hard to describe my shock that the best Broadway play I have seen in years, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, won only one.
I realize that the knee-jerk reaction to this statement will be along the lines that the Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Broadway Theatre (as presided over by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League) is just another organization beset by cronyism and overtly biased members. In fact, The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article about the non-cancellation of the Tony Award’ceremony despite the writer’s strike titled After two ‘catastrophic’ years for Broadway, have the Tonys become too big to fail? As suggested by Ashley Lee’s article, commercially the biggest effect the Tony Awards has on the public at large is the so-called “Tony’s bump." That's the increase in ticket sales because the ceremony reaches a public not traditionally fans of live theatre. A bewildered tourist in New York City faced with an average ticket price of $132 must indeed be reassured by an advertisement boasting that a given production has won multiple awards.
To Kill a Mockingbird was entered into the 2019 Tony Awards, the year in which Hadestown (a musical I also immensely enjoyed) took home eight of them. So perhaps the competition was stiff. This production was also impeded by two lawsuits before opening: one with playwright Christopher Sergel , who claimed the production rights, and another with the Harper Lee estate, which found Aaron Sorkin’s script too much of a departure from the book. Sorkin countersued and the matters were later settled out of court.
That was of little significance. The lack of awards and the legal controversies did not seem to hinder the production at all; it generated $22 million in advance ticket sales, presumably due to Sorkin’s celebrity. Aaron Sorkin is well known for his legion of extremely popular and highly critically regarded movies and tv shows including A Few Good Men, Enemy of the State, Being the Ricardos, Molly's Game, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, The Social Network, Charlie Wilson's War, The West Wing, and Sports Night.
In light of that resumé, it is no surprise that Sorkin’s adaptation is incontestably designed for modern audiences. The dialogue is rapid-fire, and the controversial subjects are bought to the forefront rather than spoken about in hushed tones. Atticus’s children Scout and Jem and the neighborhood kid Dill are transformed into a modern Greek chorus, endowing them with he ability to break the fourth wall with commentary that elucidates the plot and spotlights the play’s various morality tales. Unsurprisingly, critics are split on this issue (as clearly was the Harper Lee Estate), but as no plot points were altered and the ending remains the same, I found this modernization not only refreshing but compelling.
Sorkin's adaption gives the actors so much more to work with. Unsurprisingly, the production has attracted a variety of well-known names to the coveted lead role of Atticus Finch, including Richard Thomas (in this touring production), Matthew Modine, Jeff Daniels, Rafe Spall, Ed Harris, and Greg Kinnear.
In a tiresome throng of Broadway remakes of cult-classic movies, adaptations that struggle to update bygone value systems, Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a harrowing reminder that the legal scenarios and racial intolerance described in Lee's 1960 novel remain relevant today.
2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Austin, TX, 78712
May 9 - 14, 2023
Bass Concert Hall, Austin