To Kill A Mockingbird - Stage Production | Willa Norvell
Most students have, at one point or another, become familiar with Harper Lee’s award winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Whether through the original words of the author or the 1962 film, the story of a young girl Scout as she comes to understand the nature of prejudice and racism has been told over and over again. In December of 2018, playwright Aaron Sorkin premiered his adapted script on Broadway, and the stage version proved to create just as much of an impact as before. This December, the National tour of the production came and performed at the Civic Center in downtown San Diego, where I had the opportunity to see the incredible cast and crew reimagine the story in 2 hours and 35 minutes.
The play itself is told through the lens of Scout, her older brother Jem, and their neighbor for the summer, Dill. The three narrate the trial of Tom Robinson as well as other happenings in the town in addition to the trial. Sorkin’s specific perspective choice contributed the critical point of view of a child in the 1930s that would have otherwise been lost in the depth of the show. For the majority of the play, cast members manually changed the setting, and a black out was scarcely used to illustrate a jump in time. The effect of such particular staging allowed for the audience to read the acting much like a book, with continuous movement instead of imitating a television show that involves breaks. While the set remained simplistic and thematically focused, there was not a space on the stage that felt isolated, as the scenes were blocked from the cyclorama curtains all the way to the edge of the apron.
Looking in the Playbill, it was easy to become just as overwhelmed with the sheer excellence of the actors. Many of the members of this production, including Yaegel T. Welch (Tom Robinson) and Arianna Gayle Stucki (Mayella Ewell), were part of the original staging, and visibly brought a conversant perspective to the new group. Though the most difficult role to cast is Atticus Finch, I could not have been more inspired to see the lawyer be portrayed in any way other than how Richard Thomas brought the character to life that evening. Thomas, Emmy award winner and Shakespeare veteran, at 71 years old contributed an inimitable authenticity of a father that naturally created a connection between himself, his children, Tom Robinson, and of course the audience. Recognizing the criticism the character has received for a written white savior complex, he released a statement about how we should “applaud” making right decisions but not “valorize” them, acknowledging the importance of transforming influential stories to the appropriate contemporary rendition.
An unexpected performance from my perspective was Steven Lee Johnson as Dill Harris. Though it had been a few years since I had last familiarized myself with the details of the novel, Johnson uniquely strengthened the bond between Dill and Atticus, adding another layer to the ongoing theme of family life. Similarly, I was surprised by a cameo in the production, where I watched Mary Badham play Mrs. Henry Dubose. Badham, at the age of ten, played the original Scout Finch in the 1962 film, becoming one of the youngest actors ever to be nominated for an Oscar. I can only imagine that she developed a tight bond with the current Scout, Melanie Moore, in her personal study of the character, as Moore mastered her delivery as well as the objectives of such a young child.
What sets this play apart from so many historical retellings of renowned narratives is the relevance of its content, as Finch’s “call to justice” remains so pertinent within the context of how people of color continue to be treated today. The stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird reminds us, decades later, of the moral consequences American history carries into the twenty-first century, as well as posing a reflection as to how much progress we have made as a country. I wish so deeply that this show could have stayed in San Diego at least a bit longer, for if so many only read the book once in school, how much of an impact will the story actually have?