Who knew Atticus had a sense of humor? Who knew Calpurnia had such insight, wisdom, and spunk? Who knew Scout had any uncertainty about her dad? The way I interpreted Scout from reading the book and watching the 1962 film is that she was observing without much insight. I never thought of Atticus as witty. Calpurnia? I never thought of her at all. But Aaron Sorkin must have seen those qualities, and he has brought them to us all in his play opening on Broadway next week: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Harper Lee introduced us to the Finch family and their neighbors and friends decades ago, but Aaron Sorkin brings us into the family’s inner circle. And we are all the better for it.
There is so much hype around whether or not my beloved Sorkin (yes, I am a Sorkinite, and proud of it!) will change the book’s characters to the point of no return — and how to tar and feather him if he does. It gave me pause for concern. Will he buckle under the pressure? Change whatever limb he’d gone out on in his writing of this play around my very favorite book in the world, and of course, one of the best films of the twentieth century? As he said, “It was a suicide mission.” I had no reason to fear. He held nothing back. He, like the rest of us who are aging, might be at the point where he doesn’t care anymore what we think, and the play is all the better for it.
Sorkin gave us additional layers into each of the characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird” without changing any of the core values and attributes we already know so well. Atticus has a sense of humor. Scout has a wisdom while she reminisces that couldn’t have be shown up in the book because she was still a child. Tom Robinson is more insightful than Atticus and has a better understanding of the community in which they live. And Calpurnia — who might be the most important person to us in this production — has a relationship with Atticus, not just the children. This relationship gives us the doorway to the change Atticus must make in the way he looks at his neighbors and friends. Without her, he slides by. It’s almost like Harper Lee’s book introduced them all to us, and Sorkin made us part of their inner circle. Part of their family.
It’s not easy to give Atticus humor. But without it, there is no way any of our souls could withstand the devastating realities of life back then, which we now know isn’t as far away as we thought. His humor is never at anyone’s expense. It’s sometimes above their pay grade, but it’s not above ours, and it makes the message palatable. He changes and grows in a way that he seemed too weary to do in the book or film.
Jeff Daniels as Atticus? Don’t be mad at me, Aaron, because I have heard your interviews about how there was no one else to play the role, but I think you are wrong there. One of my fellow attendees said, “He spoke the words that showed he changed from someone who believed everyone is good and has a point of view that should be considered to believing that there are some people not worth respecting, but I didn’t see it in him. They seemed like empty words.” While I recognize that Gregory Peck is a hard act to follow — just in his physical demeanor alone — it was more than that. Jeff Daniels didn’t change. And, his timing is not on point, except for in his comedic messaging, and since every other cast member’s timing is perfectly synchronized like one of the great Barry Manilow tunes, it really stands out, and not in a good way. He doesn’t walk the stage well. And, the stage, which I found somewhat interruptive, is changing in front of us and he looks like that guy who is from Wall Street and has no business helping the movers move anything. If he is supposed to play it that way, they need to change it. It’s distracting. I don’t think Jeff Daniels, who I feel was genius in “The Newsroom” is my Atticus. Sorry, Aaron. I’m not sure who should have played the role, but I will keep you posted as I marinate in it.
The starring role is Scout, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, whose timing is impeccable. She is onstage throughout the play and never once looks like she doesn’t totally belong where she is standing. Her ability to be childlike and yet wisely grown up is uncanny. And her comedic timing? Spot on, girlfriend. She has award nominations under her belt, but the Tony nod that will surely come her way is well deserved.
The other stand out is LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Calpurnia, who doesn’t allow her Mammy presence from “Gone With the Wind” to make her nonthreatening, but instead lets it be the adjective in the sentence of her role in society in the time to which we’ve been transported. She is Atticus’ teacher and conscience, and I wish we all had someone like her in our lives.
When the curtain came down on the first half of the play, I thought I’d just seen the best first act of a play ever. I can’t say the second act is there yet. I think, for example, that there were three times at the end of the play (and we were 2.5 hours in, so it was time) when I thought Sorkin had made his point and the curtain would drop, only to transition to another scene. I think this can be fixed. Sometimes more is just more, and the second act has a bit more in it than we need. And the court scenes? Aaron, you have to go back to “The Supremes” episode of “The West Wing.” Don’t gently layer in Tom’s bad arm. The movie, in which we see it through the physical act of Atticus throwing him something he can’t catch, was important. It was ACTION, and we need action in the court — not the physical attacks that simply broke up the dialog but didn’t seem real.
This play will be around for a long, long time. It will sit on the shelves with “A Few Good Men,” “The West Wing,” and “Moneyball,” which I think are Sorkin’s best. It will also sit inside everyone who sees it, as a warning that what you want to be reality is not necessarily reality, and the danger in thinking that it is can be catastrophic. Tom would have lived if Atticus’ desire to see the glass as half full wasn’t so cemented in his desire for his community. Harper Lee forgot to tell us that, and Sorkin added it to remind us of the hubris of thinking we can walk in anyone else’s shoes. By the way, Sorkin’s ability to give us this is what makes his play elevate Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a whole different level.
Thank you, Aaron Sorkin, yet again.