Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Broadway Tour of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at Orpheum Theatre

I was fortunate enough to see Aaron Sorkin's new adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird twice on Broadway, with its original Atticus Finch, Jeff Daniels. It was a profound experience (especially the second time, coming out of a global pandemic and a national racial reckoning), and I'm so glad this play is finally going on tour. America needs to see it and remember our history, in order to understand our present. But this is no dry depressing history lesson, it's captivating storytelling that brings new life to this familiar and beloved story. There are moments of lightness and humor, wonderful theatricality, and deeply and darkly resonant themes. It's only here for one week, so get your ticket here and then head to downtown Minneapolis to see this necessary and relevant play.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an American tragedy. A tragedy that happened in 1934 when this specific story of a Black man wrongly convicted and killed is set, a tragedy that was happening when the novel was published in 1960 at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, a tragedy that is still happening today. This play feels like a call to action. There was no other possible ending to this story of a Black man accused of raping a White woman in 1934 Alabama; no matter the evidence, no matter how good of a lawyer Atticus Finch is, there's no way a jury of 12 White men would do anything other than find Tom Robinson guilty (this is only a spoiler for people who don't know American history). But as Atticus says in his closing argument, "we can't go on like this, we must heal this wound or we'll never stop bleeding."*

Jem (Justin Mark), Atticus (Richard Thomas), Scout (Melanie Moore)
and Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) have a discussion on the porch
(photo by Julieta Cervantes)
No one better to write this call to action than my favorite TV writer Aaron Sorkin, creator of such righteously idealistic TV shows as The West Wing and The Newsroom, bringing his trademark wit and intelligence to the script. He's created a clever narrative structure in which the story is narrated by Atticus' children Scout and Jem and their friend Dill, charmingly portrayed by adult actors Melanie Moore, Justin Mark, and U of M/Guthrie BFA grad Steven Lee Johnson (who did a few #TCTheater shows about ten years ago). The story begins after the trial is over, then we see the trial proceed, with flashbacks to fill in the story. The play culminates at the end of the trial, no justice for Tom Robinson (a quietly powerful performance by Yaegel T. Welch, in a much different role than when he was last on this stage in The Play that Goes Wrong), and some sort of unsatisfying justice for accuser Bob Ewell (an appropriately unlikeable Joey Collins). As the iconic character Atticus Finch, whose inherent sense of justice is not enough to change the way the world was, or is, Broadway/TV/film vet Richard Thomas gives a beautiful lead performance, both strong and vulnerable, funny and somber. The Finches' long-time family maid Calpurnia (understudy Dorcas Sowunmi) also gets to have her say, a nice update to what is essentially a "White Savior" story, with more voice and agency given to the Black characters.*

Richard Thomas as Atticus with members of the ensemble
(photo by Julieta Cervantes)
Bartlet Sher directs the large and talented ensemble** that fills up the world of this town and brings it life and vitality. Aaron Sorkin's script jumps around in time and space, but the direction makes it clear where and when we are at all times, with scenes smoothly transitioning from one to the next. The ensemble moves the set pieces in between scenes, so we see the transformation magic happen in front of us with human energy moving it. The tone is also a nice mix, the humor providing a welcome release but never taking away from the gravity of the situation. The stunning set (designed by Miriam Buether) has been transferred from Broadway with few changes that I noticed. Surrounded by weathered walls as if in an old courthouse, the Finch front porch is rolled in from both sides and clicks into place, the roof and a giant tree lowered from above. It's then pushed back into the wings as we move to the courtroom or other locations, furniture pieces and door frames human-powered into place as the narration continues. It's beautifully inventive theatrical storytelling. The 1930s period costumes complete the look of the piece, in dusty muted tones as if we're watching in sepia (costume design by Ann Roth).

As with all of Aaron Sorkin's work, this piece provides a feeling of hope, despite the infuriating fact that 90 years after this story takes place, we still haven't healed the centuries old wound of racism in this country. So we keep bleeding. There's a direct line from the many real-life Tom Robinsons that inspired this story, through Emmett Till, to George Floyd, and countless others along the way. This play holds up a mirror to America past and present, the good, the bad, and the ugly, the people who are fighting for justice, those who are impeding it through their fear and ignorance, and those that suffer because of it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful and well-told lesson for Black History Month, in the form of a gorgeously scripted and executed play that's engaging from start to finish.

See To Kill a Mockingbird at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through February 19. All rise!

*Some text borrowed from my review of the Broadway production.

**A fun note: the ensemble includes another familiar face from #TCTheater, Maeve Moynihan, who's been acting on local stages since childhood, and understudies Scout on this tour. I'd love to see her perform that role, but I'm sure I'll have many more chances to see her on stage as she continues on in her career.


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical THE PROM, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Find more info in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for March 4 1pm performance only).