I have a confession to make. I don't actually remember much of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it many years ago and the details are about as fuzzy as what I had for breakfast last week. So when I saw the live production of To Kill A Mockingbird, not only did I not know what to expect from a stage production, but most of the plot was a surprise to me as well.
I have one more confession. I went ahead and read the cliffs notes before writing this review, so I could be moderately informed when mentioning the novel.
Confessions aside, this play was excellent. If Network staring Bryan Cranston weren't also in the running I would assume To Kill a Mockingbird would win most of the Tony's its up for.
The way the story was told was the most interesting aspect of the play. The stage production employed non-linear storytelling combined with a memory piece. The play opens with the ending, Bob Ewell falling on his own knife. It then immediately segues into the trial of Tom Robinson, the focal point of the play. This is all told from the perspective of Scout, Jem, and Dill as adults.
This was a brilliant way to modernize a classic story. In 2019, racial injustice is at the top of everyone's minds. The prejudice Tom faces in the play is a stark reminder of how little has changed in the last 60 years. When Tom is accused of trying to escape, we're not expected to believe he actually ran. In 2019, this is just a cover for the guards to shoot an unarmed black man.
Throughout the play I experienced a visceral reaction to what was happening in front of me. The casual use of the "n word" and the expectation that Tom "knows his place" was horrifying to watch.
While I didn't remember much of the story, I remembered reading the novel in high school and naively thinking "this isn't what the world looks like anymore." Today, I realize this story is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.
Every member of the cast was superb. Before we cover Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, I'd like to take a moment to call out some individuals I imagine will get less press.
Gbenga Akinnagbe was incredible as Tom Robinson. While this was a minor role in the novel, Tom may be the star of the play. This is a good man arrested for the crime of being black. Gbenga's Tom was a graceful man who kept his dignity under horrifying circumstances. I cared more about this character than anyone else on stage and I think Gbenga's performance had a lot to do with that.
Next up, I'd like to discuss the racists, or more specifically the actors playing them: Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell, Erin Wilhelmi as Mayella Ewell, and Danny McCarthy as Horace Gilmer. These are hard roles to play. They all require the actor behaves in an unspeakable manor and personify the worst parts of America. I found all of their characters disgusting, which is just as challenging for an actor as playing someone relatable.
I'd also like to call out LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia. As the innocent black woman, it's her job to explain to the audience when our hero Atticus is feeling a little too self-important. There is a sub-plot where Atticus behaves as though he's doing Calpurnia a favor by defending Tom Robinson. I really appreciated the way both Calpurnia and LaTanya handled this, explaining to the audience that people with the best intentions can still be in the wrong.
Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, Will Pullen as Jem, and Gideon Glick as Dill were all excellent in their roles. While the actors are all adults, they are the ones narrating from a child's point of view. This trio did a great job of breaking the tension onstage and made the play fun to watch.
Finally, Jeff Daniels was a brilliant Atticus Finch. To be Atticus, Jeff had to be a father, a lawyer, and the moral center of the play. Jeff delivered on the entire range of the character. I thought he was most impressive going toe-to-toe with the racists, providing just the right amount of force on people much weaker than him.
No Broadway show is complete without an impressive set and stage. Miriam Buether did a phenomenal job as scenic designer building the world of Maycomb Alabama. I loved how the show starts with a completely bare set and then immediately transforms into a courtroom.
I thought it was particularly impressive how quickly the stage could flow between sets. The transitions between the courtroom and the Finch home were as smooth as a scene change in a film.
The Finch home was also impressive. I loved how they elevated the stage to show the bounds of the home. It was also very cool how the porch could slide in and out of view to show both the inside and outside of the home.
While this was a play, not a musical, the show employed a live guitarist and pianist to add more depth to each scene. This was an effective way to warn the audience of upcoming drama. It became a little predictable, but I still enjoyed it.
Storytelling: 10/10 - Aaron Sorkin did an incredible job modernizing the source material.
Cast: 9/10 - Every role was incredibly deep, and each member of the cast delivered on every facet of their character.
Set: 8/10 - The set was spectacular and seamless between scenes.
Music: 7/10 - The music was a nice add-on to the show. While it wasn't a huge deal, I enjoyed it.
Overall: 9/10 - This play was amazing. I highly recommend you see it before it closes.
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