by Lynn on November 23, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Presented by Mirvish Productions. Plays until Nov. 27, 2023.

Written by Aaron Sorkin

Based on Harper Lee’s novel

Direct by Bartlett Sher

Original music by Adam Guettel

Scenic design by Miriam Buether

Costumes design by Ann Roth

Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton

Sound design by Scott Lehrer

Cast: Mary Badham

Ian Bedford

Anne-Marie Cusson

Christopher R. Ellis

Travis Johns

Steven Lee Johnson

Ted Koch

Mariah Lee

Justin Mark

Melanie Moore

Jeff Still

Richard Thomas

Yaegel T. Welch

Jacqueline Williams

Gregg Wood

A terrific dramatization by Aaron Sorkin of Harper Lee’s stunning novel given a respectable, if obvious, production. Richard Thomas gives a fine performance of the courtly, honourable Atticus Finch.

The Story. It’s based on the beautiful 1960 novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” by southern writer, Harper Lee. The story is narrated by a young tom-boy nicknamed Scout by her family and her brother named Jem. Their father is Atticus Finch, a fair-minded lawyer and a widower. They have a housekeeper named Calpurnia. One summer in 1935 their idyllic lives change when Atticus defends a black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping and beating up a 19-year-old neighbour, Mayelle Ewell, who is white.

During the trial Scout, Jem and a new friend, Dill Harris, sneak into the courthouse to see Atticus defend the man. The children are given a rude awakening about how black people are perceived and treated by whites at that time. They see how fair-minded and serious Atticus is. Atticus proves that Tom Robinson didn’t commit the crime and points suspicion elsewhere. The person who is suspected threatens to get even with Atticus. He almost achieves his goal too.

There is also a mysterious neighbour named Boo Radley. The children have never seen him but often talk about him and wonder what he is like. In a sense Boo Radley is another example of how people treat those who they perceive as different in some way. Something happened in Mr. Radley’s life and he has almost never stepped foot out of his house, as far as anyone can tell. Mr. Radley comes to Scout and Jem’s rescue when they are threatened one night. They learn another lesson in tolerance and understanding by that experience.

The Production. Playwright, Aaron Sorkin has shifted the order of the details in the novel: the trial of Tom Robinson comes at the end of the book, in the play, the trial is front and center, including the part that Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) had to be convinced to take the case. He didn’t think he was a good defense lawyer, but the judge in the case, Judge Taylor (a wonderfully laid back and honourable Jeff Still) convinced him in a bit of gross lack of ‘professionalism.’ Judge Taylor is as decent as Atticus and knew that Tom Robinson needed a smart, good lawyer and made the move to ensure that Atticus took up the case.

Miriam Buether has designed an efficient set of moving parts that move on to be Atticus Finch’s house, the court room and the local jail, among others. Ann Roth has designed functional clothes dark clothes for the majority of the characters with a light tanned coloured suit for Atticus, so that he stands out.   

Bartlett Sher had staged a lot of activity at the beginning of the production. Scout (Melanie Moore) enters with conviction and purpose to begin the story. Melanie Moore as Scout is a bit forced in trying to convey she’s playing a young girl. She is followed by Jem Finch (Justin Mark) Scout’s older brother by three years. Justin Mark as Jem has that older-brother-seriousness when dealing with his young sister. Then their young friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson) arrives who is between Scout and Jem in age, enters to add other aspects of the story. Steven Lee Johnson as Dill has that lovely mix of precociousness and an eagerness to please his friends. I found Mr. Johnson the best of the three actors playing children. (Note: Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Harper Lee and is the model for Dill).  

Once the story is established set pieces are pushed on, chairs arranged, tables positioned. A lot of activity is going on. So, when Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch makes his anticipated entrance, all the activity stops and Richard Thomas makes his star-entrance along the top of the stage down stage, walking with a purpose, briefcase in hand, to expected applause. Loved that set up. I never get tired watching a smart director nudge the audience into recognizing the star and reacting appropriately.

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch has that relaxed demeanor of a decent, honourable man. He believes in the decency and goodness of his neighbours until his Black housekeeper Calpurnia (a wonderful Jacqueline Williams who is watchful, quiet and knowing about the fact that the neighbours are far from decent) sets him straight. Atticus is respectful of all his fellow citizens. He treats Tom Robinson (a fine performance by Yaegel T. Welch) with respect and kindness. This is beautifully illuminated in Richard Thomas’ performance.  

I love Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the novel. And there are lovely touches of business in Bartlett Sher’s direction: Scout tenderly putting her head on her father’s shoulder; Bob Ewell looking sideways menacingly at his daughter Mayelle in court to terrify her into lying about what happened to her. But overall, I think this touring production is obvious, forced in some of the acting, and almost too amplified. It’s as if the creators need to tick all the boxes and underline the points to ensure the audience hears everything, instead of trusting them to listen and pay attention to the details. The story represents a terrible miscarriage of justice, representative of a racist mindset—have faith that the audience will ‘get it’ without having to present it with broad strokes, and too slow a pace of the ending that it overplayed the poignancy.

Mirvish Productions present:

Opened: Nov. 21, 2023

Plays until Nov. 27, 2023 but returns May 28 to June 2, 2024

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (1 intermission)

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