Several plays this Broadway season have exposed the distrust and hatred that divides people along racial and ethnic lines. Of all of them, the best-known and most iconic is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was first a bestselling novel by Harper Lee and then a beloved 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
Set in the Depression, the story centers on the Finch family, in particular the young girl, Scout, and her relationship with her father, Atticus, a lawyer who defends an innocent black man against charges of raping a white woman. The story is told from the standpoint of the white family and their Maycomb, Ga., neighbors, with black characters largely seen through Scout’s eyes.
Writer Aaron Sorkin, who is known for the speed-talking television drama “The West Wing,” alters the dynamics of “Mockingbird” in his stage adaptation. He dials back Scout’s role in order to bring out the viewpoints of the key African-Americans in the story, including Tom Robinson, the accused man, and Calpurnia, the housekeeper who watches over Scout and her brother, Jem. This shift allows the black characters more of an opportunity to speak for themselves.
In another switch up from the original, Sorkin jumps right into the climactic scene of Tom’s trial instead of taking a leisurely amble through Scout’s daily life, which is how the book and movie begin. Instead, he interweaves just enough elements of the back story to give playgoers their bearings. This choice serves to get the play off and running.
Actor Jeff Daniels, with his laid-back humor, is brilliant as Atticus, although perhaps he’s missing the gravitas of Peck’s extraordinary film performance. Daniels brings his richly impressive flashes of humor to the role so that you can see where Scout comes by her rebellious spirit and her sense of humanity. In both film and play, the nobility and integrity of Atticus’s character shine through.
While Sorkin’s adaptation and Daniels’s acting put a different spin on the story, all the same, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a timeless classic, and no change can alter its greatness.