|Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch|
That is arguably one of the most recognized names in American literature. It is also a famous name in American cinema, and now it is a well-known name in theatre. Atticus Finch is the leading character in the book, movie and play To Kill A Mockingbird, the latter of which is currently gracing the stage of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour.
It is indeed a rare event that the Hippodrome presents a straight play as opposed to a musical. However, Miriam Buether’s scenic design, Ann Roth’s costumes, Jennifer Lipton’s lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound design plus the excellent performances by the actors make it work. I hope the Hippodrome continues to feature stage plays, and next season the comedy Clue will be part of the slate.
Starring as Atticus Finch is none other than the celebrated actor Richard Thomas, whose body of work spanning five decades has earned him numerous awards and accolades. But his role as the beloved John-Boy character in the 1970’s TV series The Waltons is probably what most people remember about him. Incredibly, he looks almost the same as he did some 50 years ago. (I hate him!)
Under the meticulous direction of Bartlett Sher, the cast performs at a high level, and Mr. Thomas, in particular, offers a master class in acting.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a 2018 play based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Harper Lee, adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin, the writer best known for the Emmy Award winning TV series The West Wing. The 1962 black and white film version, which garnered three Oscars, starred Gregory Peck. Fun fact: Mary Badham, who plays the role of the racist neighbor, Mrs. Henry Dubose in this iteration, had played Scout as a 10-year-old in the film.
"Mr. Thomas... offers a master class in acting."
Sorkin’s depiction occasionally veers from Lee’s popular book, but the core storyline remains intact. The play takes on serious issues, but comedic lines are dropped throughout. While those lighter moments may entertain the audience by offering a diversion from the solemnity, I feel that at times that diversion distracts, albeit temporarily, from the powerful messaging contained in the plot.
For instance, a character throws around the N-word and refers to someone as sub-human to jolt the audience only to have another character say something amusing just a few minutes later inducing chuckles. Less would be better. The exception is the well-placed stinging lines by Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia. They hit the mark.
Set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930’s, the story centers on Atticus Finch, a lawyer who was assigned the task of defending a Black man, Tom Robinson, who was wrongfully accused of assaulting and raping a white young woman Mayella Ewell. Finch, a widower, is raising two young children, Scout and Jem. He is assisted in this effort by Calpurnia, a Black housekeeper who is as close to a mother as the children ever had.
The poignant trial of Tom Robinson is the centerpiece of the play. Flashbacks of events leading to the trial are presented, which is a fresh approach to the plot. Here we learn of the palpable amount of ignorance and racism in the town.
Scout, a tomboy-ish, precocious girl; Jem, her good-hearted friendly older brother; and Dill, their nerdy friend who dazzles Atticus with his sophistication are narrators of the story looking back at these impactful years. They also provide commentary throughout including the proceedings during the trial.
|Melanie Moore as Scout and Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia enjoy a playful moment.|
In a tour de force,
Richard Thomas, as stated previously, excels as Atticus Finch and does more
justice to the legendary role. The character sees only the good in people and instills upon his children to respect everybody no matter who they are. While not trained in criminal law, Atticus reluctantly agrees to take on the case of Tom Robinson (played extraordinarily by Yaegel T. Welch) persuaded by Judge Taylor (David Manis) who presides at the trial.
As Atticus, Mr. Thomas’ interactions with the Finch children Scout and Jem and later Dill are heartwarming and where much of the humor takes place. He earnestly conveys the principles of respect and morality to the children—traits he holds dear.
Yet, it his performance at the trial that reveals Mr. Thomas’ massive acting talents. Low-keyed at first, but during cross-examination of the State’s witnesses he is explosive. Fiery and on point, Mr. Thomas demonstrates the passion needed to convince a jury but, sadly, to no avail. His scorching closing argument alone is worth the price of admission.
Melanie Moore plays young Scout with flair. At times pugnacious, she has no trouble challenging her father and curiously refers to him as Atticus rather than Dad. Her role as the narrator is effective and spirited.
Similarly, Daniel Neale, who plays Jem on the night this performance was reviewed, performs well as Scout’s older brother and protector. He grapples with the ills of society and in particular, the scourge of racism existing in this southern town.
|Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson|
Their friend Dill, who was visiting his aunt and neighbor of the Finches during the summer, played by Morgan Bernhard on the night this performance was reviewed, has a somewhat comedic role. He continually impresses Atticus with his sophistication and wisdom.
Perhaps one of the most touching scenes in the play was his moving conversation with Atticus whereby the youngster reveals his loneliness and never having known his father. Mr. Bernhard delivers the scene splendidly.
An outstanding performance is turned in by Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia, the Finches housekeeper. Maternal to the core and sassy, Calpurnia has experienced racism first-hand and is taking its toll on her. Ms. Williams delivers her powerful lines with precise timing.
Yaegel T. Welch convincingly plays the falsely accused rapist Tom Robinson. From an injury sustained at childhood, Tom was not physically able to have attacked his accuser Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki) nor did Atticus Finch’s explosive defense stop the jury from convicting him in 37 minutes and facing an eventual death penalty.
For her part, Ms. Stucki is excellent in conveying the tormented Mayella. Unable to face the principals in the courthouse and seemed to be sitting in a fetal position throughout the proceedings, she was triggered by Atticus’ cross-examination. There it was revealed that her attacks and subsequent bruises were brought on by her father, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) and not Tom Robinson, not that she admitted it. When that point was raised, Ms. Stucki effectively portrays Mayella as she releases her pent-up emotions and fears that her father wrought. It is a dynamite scene.
As the villain Bob Ewell, Mr. Collins has the unenviable task of spewing the most racist and also antisemitic language in the play. Ignorant and illiterate and often drunk, Ewell comes off as a menacing figure and a threat to anyone including Atticus who sides with “them.” Through rousing diatribes, Mr. Collins is masterful in portraying that character.
Overall, the cast and technical crew are terrific in presenting a powerful story. The staging adds to the excellence with the frequent scene changes, such as from the courtroom to the Finches front porch that require the movement of sizable set pieces.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic no matter the medium. Its overarching message of respect, morality and goodness overrules the cynicism, evil and racism that unfortunately still exist today. This is a must-see play and a joy to witness such an accomplished actor like Richard Thomas perform in a role so suitable for him.
And that is my closing argument.
Advisory: The play contains profoundly racist language in the dialogue including the use of the N-word.
Runing time. Three hours with an intermission.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through March 19 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
Saw the play today. I agree and second your review of the show. I can’t believe that Richard Thomas is 71! Fabulous. Sad that the story is still so relevant. I read ToKAM in high school…a long time ago. I intend to read the book again. Agree with your suggestion to present more dramatic plays.
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