Review: Richard Thomas and a fine cast render the heart and horror of ‘Mockingbird’

By Sharon Eberson

It’s been a long time coming, Richard Thomas onstage as Atticus Finch. He was announced to lead the tour back in May 2019 – that was the second appearance of Pittsburgh CLO’s Scrooge ago, along with a pandemic’s worth of waiting.

So it feels good to say enthusiastically that both the actor and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird deliver the goods as one of those rare plays that was a hit on Broadway and now tours through Pittsburgh.

The Benedum Center is its third stop, opening Tuesday, April 19. It lands not only with a bravura performance by Thomas and a fine cast, but it also is the opportunity to experience Aaron Sorkin‘s vision of one of America’s best-known tales.

This is an interpretation by a master of courtroom dramas (A Few Good Men; The Trial of the Chicago 7), retooling one of the world’s most beloved novels. The book of To Kill a Mockingbird also has the distinction of being banned for its unflinching portrayal of racism in the deep South and battered as the story of the Black experience told through a white lens.

Your reaction to Sorkin’s version, honed by director Bartlett Sher for Broadway, may depend on your relationship with the source material, whether the novel or the award-winning 1962 film.

But for anyone willing to go with the dynamic flow that is fit for live performance, rather than the languor of the page or screen, the play now at the Benedum is as frank as they come. I don’t recall the n-word said so many times by white characters in any show, ever – and yet as endearing a portrait of family and friendship as you’ll see onstage.

It helps that this particular To Kill a Mockingbird has never lacked for star power, first with Jeff Daniels and Ed Harris on Broadway, and now with Thomas, the Tony nominee and Emmy winner who may be best known as John-Boy Walton in TV’s The Waltons. He also has a Broadway career dating back to 1958 and was seen on tour here as the lead in 12 Angry Men in 2007.

Like the Atticus Finch of Oscar-winner Gregory Peck, who was saintly to a fault, Thomas’ Atticus lives by a rigid creed of allowing everyone his or her dignity, no matter their heinous actions. That belief is sorely tested at home and in the courtroom, and Thomas shines as bright in moments of fatherly devotion as he does in his outrage at the horrors that humans can inflict on one another.

When we meet Thomas’ Atticus, the small-town lawyer, is so staunch in his beliefs that they blind him. But endowed with compassion and humility, he also learns and evolves, just as his children do in the course of the play.

Comparisons, of course, are inevitable when it comes to these characters, and this story was crowned No. 1 in a PBS viewers’ votes for The Great American Read.

Left to right: Justin Mark as Jem Finch, Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch, Melanie Moore as Scout Finch and Steven Lee Johnson as Dill Harris in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes)

Harper Lee’s tale of racial hatred, institutional injustice, and the lies people tell themselves in a small Alabama town circa 1934 is mostly seen through prepubescent Scout Finch’s eyes. During one eventful summer, Scout’s father – she calls him Atticus – defends a Black man (Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson) accused of raping a white woman.

The film version earned an Oscar nomination for Mary Badham as Scout – the same Mary Badham who is now onstage at the Benedum, spewing hatred as the mean Mrs. Dubose, nemesis of Scout and her big brother, Jem.

Before seeing Sorkin’s version, I deliberately did not return to the source material but instead studied some facts about his Broadway hit.

It packed in audiences for a COVID-interrupted run from December 2018 to January this year. The play earned nine Tony nominations, not including best play, and there was one win for Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout in the best-featured actress category – really, a lead role.

On tour, the role is owned wholeheartedly by Melanie Moore, the Season 8 winner of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance? and Broadway’s Ermengarde in “Hello, Dolly!” In her blunt haircut and overalls, she is as spritely in movement as in attitude, a precocious youngster of unspecified age (my mind landed at age 8 to 10; she ages from 6 to 9 in the book). Justin Mark portrays Jem, who is as ready to be a man in his father’s eyes as Atticus is not ready to let his son out from under his thumb.

Mark’s fiery rebellion and Thomas’ unbending rules give their scenes together a glow of realism that parents and teens will surely recognize.

Sorkin has eliminated several characters, changed the course of others, and upped the ante considerably for the Finches’ maid, Calpurnia (stage and screen veteran Jacqueline Williams). “Cal” has helped raise Scout and Jem in their dead mother’s absence, and here she also is seen as a friendly companion to Atticus. It is Cal who schools him about the reality of living his ideals.

Her side-eye and asides make it clear that not everyone has the luxury of such noble thoughts. Atticus has too long turned a blind eye to the racism and hatred in his midst, and now he is about to confront it head-on, in a court of law.

His insistence that there is good in all people and demanding that Jem look beneath the surface to the suffering of morphine-addicted meany Mrs. Dubose or the truly despicable Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) doesn’t cut it. Atticus’ children and Cal see what he can’t, and he learns the hard way that you can’t always turn the other cheek to evil, particularly during the trial of Tom Robinson.

Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill wander through the courtroom scenes, commenting as Atticus stands up to the injustice happening there.

Arianna Gayle Stucki is stunningly ill at ease in her own skin as Mayella Ewell, the supposed rape victim whose family trauma has led her to lie about the crime. And Welch’s Robinson, who must wear an invisible armor to fend off the hateful words hurled at him, is a paragon of a man who cannot help but tell the truth.

However, it is Thomas delivering Atticus’ closing speech, given with the knowledge that his client never stood a chance with this jury, not of his peers, that earned an opening-night ovation from the audience.

We have arrived at this moment from the opening line presented as a bit of a mystery. Scout tells us that a man named Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Then she proceeds to dissect how that is possible and argue with Jem and Dill about where the story begins – was it the Civil War and the defeat of the South just 70 years earlier? Or perhaps the arrival of their newfound best friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) for the summer? Or was it the minute they decided to get a glimpse of neighborhood recluse Boo Radley? Or perhaps it was the trial …

Atticus can’t imagine at first that Tom will be convicted when the evidence clearly says otherwise, while the defendant knows from the beginning, “I was guilty the moment I was accused.”

The phrase “to kill a mockingbird” comes from a story about innocence destroyed by evil – with Tom as the mockingbird, surrounded by racial hatred.

In telling Tom’s fate, Sorkin weaves a sometimes odd juxtaposition of humor and heart.

Much of that humor is owed to the three children, often left to their own devices. Dill is both awkward and adept at telling tales – the character was based on Harper Lee’s friend, Truman Capote. He also provides laughs as well as pathos.

The youngster makes up stories about his absent father and tells of a mother always on the hunt for a new husband while he is sorely neglected before this summer of bliss. Not the trial, certainly. But he has lucked into the embrace of an enviably loving family. A quiet moment shared by Thomas’ fatherly Atticus and Johnson’s love-starved Dill is one of the show’s most poignant and affecting moments.

There is but one instance when Atticus, goaded by Bob Ewell, loses his cool. Although it feels somewhat contrived, there is a cathartic release in seeing Atticus finally let his feelings boil over into action. How he handles his own fallibility and his children’s reactions offer more insight into an indelible character.

The play moves apace with Tony-nominated scenery by Miriam Buether that changes almost as an additional character. For example, cast members continue dialogue while moving pieces that allow a dining room to emerge from behind a front porch. Dividers akin to picket fences for the all-white jury are a telling touch.

Audiences may enter thinking they know these characters and the key moments they are about to see, and it’s worth noting that Sorkin has not reinvented the wheel here. This is not Romeo and Juliet retold as West Side Story. It is in the details mined by a savvy script and performed with passion and grace by a fine cast that we get to revisit both the horrors and heart in this most American of tales.

Performances through Sunday, for tickets visit: https://trustarts.org/production/69948/to-kill-a-mockingbird

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