Theater Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (North American Tour)

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by William C. on December 28, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


To Kill a Mockingbird is an American masterpiece that has transcended time and medium, and which will continue to impact our cultural zeitgeist, reflected by the opening night sold-out crowd for this 2018 theatrical wonder, a sell-out for its Broadway run and now on tour at Segerstrom Hall. Patrons responded audibly and emotionally to the sharp dialogue, passionate speeches, dramatic deliveries, and crude expressions of racism.

Richard Thomas ('Atticus Finch') and The Company

Many of you probably remember reading Harper Lee’s book in school. You also may have watched Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation; Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his masterful portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch. Over time, this legendary fictional character has come to symbolize the paragon of honor in the legal profession. In writer Aaron Sorkin‘s theatrical version, the drama still unfolds in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, the seat of Maycomb County, through the eyes of Atticus’s young daughter Scout, whose father is the center of her life. Through our young protagonist, the audience experiences grace, hatred, racism, and camaraderie that weaves together the tapestry of life during The Great Depression in the rural South.

Steven Lee Johnson ('Dill'), Melanie Moore ('Scout') and Justin Mark ('Jem')

Middle-aged, poor, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, portrayed by Richard Thomas, reluctantly accepts the role to defend Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a black man accused of rape and battery of a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (understudy Mariah Lee). Through Scout (Melanie Moore), her brother Jem (Justin Mark), and their good friend, Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson), the story unfolds as both a courtroom drama and a coming-of-age story to understand the beauty and ugliness of life in a small Southern town. The story’s atmosphere is in constant flux, as childhood nostalgia is mixed with the threat of violence, racialized hatred, unconditional familial love, and the unjust death of a young black man at the hands of the police. This play holds space to talk about race, our country’s future, and our not-so-distant past. And, if I may, the play’s trial is not really for our fictional characters and a jury: Atticus Finch is pleading to America — to us, the audience. We are asked to reflect on our roles in community and if we are dedicated to upholding our neighbors’ civil liberty and humanity.

Dorcas Sowunmi and Mary Badham ('Mrs. Henry Dubose', front),
who, at ten, played Scout in the 1962 film version 

Sorkin deserves all praises and awards for this adaptation. He loves contradiction and holds ideology sacred, but he also understands the limits of doctrine. He is very aware of the need to update Atticus Finch as a character for the modern audience. To Sorkin, Atticus is a flawed man that is virtuous to a fault. More important, his historical place as a white savior is questioned in Sorkin’s hand. This is sharply reflected through Calpurnia, portrayed by the very talented Jacqueline Williams, the family’s cook. Calpurnia serves as the much-missed voice of Black Americans in the original novel. Sorkin positioned her as a maternal and ideological counterpart to Atticus. When Calpurnia confronts Atticus about his steadfast belief in civility and kind treatment of hateful neighbors, that moment spoke truth about the power of racism and the pain it inflicts — which are so much greater than an individual’s virtue and paragon. One can not disentangle from societal ills by simply disregarding the suffering of others.

Yaegel T. Welch ('Tom'), Stephen Elrod, Jacqueline Williams ('Calpurnia')

This is one fantastic and talented cast. Only with this level of performance and craft can the material be brought to life. Especially with such a severe and heavy topic, each performer has taken genuine care in handling their material.

Richard Thomas and Melanie Moore

In a tour de force performance as Atticus, Mr. Thomas lends the necessary depth to the complex character that Sorkin has created without losing a paternal appeal. His ability to command attention on stage will blow you away. Ms. Moore is simply endearing as she candidly captures Scout’s youthful outlook. Justin Mark also gives a crafted performance as Jem, a conflicted character who struggles to find his place in his early adolescence. One cannot help but fall in love with Steven Lee Johnson’s Dill Harris. His sagacious and infectious optimism offers fresh air in this otherwise heavy play.

Arianna Gayle Stucki, Richard Thomas, Stephen Elrod,
Richard Poe, Greg Wood and Joey Collins

Ms. Williams is the glue in this adaptation; while Calpurnia does not have many lines, each scene she appears in is incredibly memorable. Filling in for Arianna Gayle Stucki, Ms. Lee gives a heartbreaking performance as Mayella Ewell. I do not know how she did not break into tears when Atticus addresses her with such fury and anger. Reprising his Broadway performance, Mr. Welch is gut-wrenching and noteworthy. His delivery on the witness stand is superb.

Richard Thomas and Yaegel T. Welch

Director Bartlett Sher has assembled a fantastic design team: Miriam Buether captures the simplicity and hardworking attitude of the South with a set made up of clean lines; Jennifer Tipton‘s light design helped capture the many changing hues of the storyline; and Scott Lehrer‘s sound design is impeccable, the dialogue is easily understood. However, I often found Adam Guettel‘s original music distracting and not adding much to the storytelling. The live guitar playing sounds improvised, contrasting directly with the exceptionally crafted nature of the play. A mere quibble for this do-not-miss event.

Jacqueline Williams ('Calpurnia')

photos by Julieta Cervantes

To Kill A Mockingbird
national tour
Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr. in Costa Mesa
plays Segerstrom through January 8, 2023
Tues-Fri at 7:30, Sat at 2 & 7:30, and Sun at 6:30
tickets at (714) 556-2787 and Segerstrom
tour continues well into 2023
for cities and dates, visit Mockingbird

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