I hate to dwell too long on To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s new Broadway adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, because it inevitably means making comparisons with the classic 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck — and I just finished doing the same thing with Broadway’s Network. Yes, a theatrical work should be judged on its own merits, without having to “measure up” to a better-known version from another medium. Still, a play has work on its own terms on stage, and I think some comparisons help pinpoint the reasons where this one does and doesn’t.
On the plus side, I’m happy that Sorkin resisted the temptation to give us a revisionist take on Atticus Finch, the small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape (ignoring the more conflicted portrayal in Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s long-secret companion novel, published in 2015). Atticus is still a heroic figure, a wise father and a brave fighter for racial justice in a bigoted southern town — though Jeff Daniels’ edgier, more earthbound portrayal takes him down a peg or two from Gregory Peck’s exalted beacon of moral rectitude.
And I think Sorkin made a defensible choice in juggling the story’s timeline, opening with the rape trial and presenting much of the surrounding story in flashback — narrated by his six-year-old daughter Scout (played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, one of three adult actors who play the child characters). This frames the play more neatly as a courtroom drama, which is Sorkin’s comfort zone, and he gives the trial scenes more verisimilitude than those in the movie, which were hokey and oversimplified even by Hollywood standards. On the other hand, Sorkin — known for his dense, hyper-verbal dialogue in TV dramas like The West Wing and Newsroom — can’t helping putting new, explicitly anti-racist speeches in the mouths of the black characters (the accused rapist Tom Robinson and family maid Calpurnia), surely less true to the period, but more satisfying for a contemporary audience of liberal New York theatergoers.
My main complaint, however, is that most of the scenes outside the courtroom — Scout’s coming-of-age, my-most-memorable-summer story — simply don’t have the flavor or impact of the movie. Despite director Bartlett Sher’s elegant, well-paced production, too much of the action has to be narrated, rather than dramatized. The children’s obsession with the town’s mysterious outcast Boo Radley, most especially, doesn’t really play at all. The climactic violent encounter, in which Boo finally reveals himself, is a touching and entirely fitting denouement for the movie. Onstage it’s a cumbersome, very talky, almost extraneous coda. The movie always brings me to tears; the stage version left me (and I suspect even the audience members who give it the inevitable standing ovation) dry-eyed.