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Home > Arts > REVIEW: Joy Cometh in the Morning? <em>To Kill a Mockingbird</em> (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

REVIEW: Joy Cometh in the Morning? To Kill a Mockingbird (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) examines a witness in To Kill a Mockingbird, playing through Sunday, 2/19 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Almost everyone in the packed Orpheum Theatre last night knew the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, having read the 1960 Harper Lee novel (widely assigned in schools, although no longer throughout Minnesota) or having seen the 1962 Oscar-winning film – and, frequently, both.

In the film, Gregory Peck famously plays Atticus Finch – a lawyer, a father, and the town conscience.  The older members of the audience were also very familiar with Richard Thomas, the actor playing Atticus in the present touring company of Aaron Sorkin’s new dramatic version of Mockingbird.  Thomas had played John-Boy Walton, the oldest son and aspiring writer, in the long-running 1970s television series The Waltons.  A half-century later, Thomas’s voice still sounds familiar.  And there is another connection to the past in Mary Badham, who in this production has the modest role of the mean neighbor, Mrs. Henry Dubose.  Badham had played Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in the 1962 “Mockingbird” film and had received an Oscar nomination.  Badham has held a variety of jobs over the years since then, including occasional roles in film and on television, but this tour is her first work on stage.

The cast is brilliant.  Among the standouts, Thomas gives shading and complexity to Finch, having him grow morally over the course of the play, and not just be a righteous role model.  Melanie Moore carries the burden of the play as Scout, as she must be observer, narrator, and moral chorus.  Dorcas Sowummi plays Calpurnia, the long-time cook for the Finch family and mother-figure to Atticus’s children.  If Atticus is the town’s conscience, she is his.

Jacqueline Williams plays Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

In portraying Tom Robinson, the African American accused of rape, Yaegel T. Welch does a masterful job bringing out Robinson’s mixture of quiet dignity, fear, and resignation.  Joey Collins brings effective menace to the villainous role of Bob Ewell.  Steven Lee Johnson plays Dill Harris, a new friend to Scout Finch and her brother Jem (played by Justin Mark), visiting for the summer (Harper Lee was said to have based Dill on her childhood friend, Truman Capote).  Johnson quietly steals most of the scenes in which he appears.  The children (Scout is under 10, and Dill and Jem somewhat older) in this production are played by adults.  These age differences are occasionally distracting, but the quality of the actors makes up for it.

With “Mockingbird” and this acting group, there is so much familiarity, but also so much change.  The basic plot of Mockingbird has not altered, of course, but one cannot but see it differently now.  The story was always a strange combination of a quirky memoir of a tomboy growing up in the South with a morality play about one lawyer standing up for justice, mostly alone, against the racist mob.  In this play, as in the original book, there is a disconcerting mixture of light humor and deep tragedy.  Also, audiences now have Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, which she submitted to publishers in 1957, but which was not published until 2015. (Although often advertised as a sequel, it is in many respects a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.) In that work, Atticus Finch is a racist, and far from a role model to his daughter. Even though Lee reworked Watchman into Mockingbird, if you read both, it is now hard to think about Atticus in quite the same way.

Steven Lee Johnson (as Dill Harris), Melanie Moore (as Scout Finch) and Justin Mark (Jem Finch) onstage. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Additionally, in the aftermath of the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacy rally, all the police killings of African-American, the whole Trump and post-Trump era of unapologetic public bigotry, and the new banning of books — including Mockingbird – that would dare remind us of the struggles for civil rights, one can no longer see Harper Lee’s 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, as a benighted past that we have fully overcome.  While Sorkin’s Mockingbird gestures towards a happy, or at least hopeful ending, it also holds back against it.  When Atticus declares near the end of the play, in the words of the hymn (later sung by the cast) that “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” Calpurnia responds, “It’s taking its sweet time getting here.”

There is also reasonable objections to yet another portrayal of a “white savior” in this day and age. Sorkin offers a response to that as well, though some might find it too fleeting.  In the play, Atticus senses that Calpurnia is angry at him, and he eventually discovers that the anger derives from a moment when he mumbled under his breath, “You’re welcome” after telling Calpurnia that he had taken on Tom Robinson’s case.  As Sorkin stated in an interview, “It’s a liberal fantasy that marginalized people will recognize me. That I’m one of the good ones.” Still, this is the story of Atticus and Scout Finch, and Calpurnia and Tom Johnson are just part of the supporting cast…and that remains troubling.

The scenic design by Miriam Buether is astonishing: with a bare warehouse-like stage turned into the exterior and interior of the Finch house, the courtroom, the outside of the prison, and many other locations by the rolling on and off of simple furniture on wheels and some decorative touches dropped from the ceiling.  And it is all well accentuated by the Lighting Design of Jennifer Tipton.

Even with these doubts, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a wonderful night of theatre, a memorable collection of actors, and an important opportunity to think through the problems that still beset us. And you need to hurry: this brief run at The Orpheum ends on February 19.

Brian Bix