July 2022


To Kill A Mockingbird
at the Kennedy Center

Karren Alenier

The Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, DC registered a night (June 23, 2022) of highly relevant theater as Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, updated by Aaron Sorkin, grabbed the appreciative attention of a packed but masked house. Judging from the frequent clapping to points made in the play about justice and ethics, many of the audience members had come to see To Kill a Mockingbird, a play where justice was in question, after watching the late afternoon Congressional hearing on how the 45th president of the United States of America tried to co-opt federal Justice Department leaders to overturn the outcome of the 2016 election.

To Kill a Mockingbird set in Alabama in 1934 deals with a small-town lawyer's attempt to gain justice for a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The town's judge (Richard Poe) asks Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) to represent Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) because his current lawyer was advising Robinson to plead guilty to avoid the electric chair. Finch protests that he is not a criminal lawyer and that the time he represented clients in a criminal case, he lost. However, he believes that Robinson isn't guilty, and the good people of their town Maycomb will exonerate this Black man.



Thus, Finch offers his services to Robinson who got in trouble by helping his accuser with difficult chores assigned to her by her vile and drunken father. When Finch learns that his client felt sorry for this young woman saddled with the care of her seven siblings—the mother having died some time ago, Finch counsels his client to say only he saw she needed a hand. The novel and the play hinge on societal pecking order—who is better off— and therefore emotional reactions override logic and truth in much the same way as the United States is divided today over what is best for governance of the USA whether it concerns elections, gun laws, or abortion rights. The prosecuting attorney Horace Gilmer (Luke Smith) badgers Robinson about why he would help Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki) until Robinson breaks and tells his truth that he felt sorry for that white woman. Finch knows then the jury will convict, but it does not stop him from his highly charged closing argument that someone in the courtroom is guilty of having attacked Mayella and that it isn't Tom Robinson.


Many of the details of Sorkin's play are different from the novel. When the play opened in 2018, these alterations, particularly to Atticus Finch and the Black characters Tom Robinson and Finch's housekeeper/nanny Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams),  got him in trouble with the estate of Harper Lee. Sorkin felt adamantly that in today's world, black characters could not be part of the landscape or, as he told Jeffrey Brown of PBS, a "magical Negro" who somehow fixes things. Additionally, Finch could not emerge as an unscathed hero. Luckily, Sorkin was able to come to resolution with Lee's estate.


Most of the narration of the play is carried by Atticus' children Scout (Melanie Moore) and Jem (Justin Mark) who represent the voices of innocence and moral integrity. In the novel, Scout is the sole narrator, but the play requires more of these two voices and their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). The children not only provide commentary about Tom Robinson's trial and how they view the actions of their father, but they speak the lines of deaf actor Anthony Natale who signs  as he plays Robinson's boss Link Deas. Less the audience forget that Scout and Jem are breaching the Fourth wall and talking directly to the audience, they share at one point their narration roles with Dill who must be reminded that they are giving him the spotlight.  

When the play opens and when Act II begins, Scout comments on a newspaper article about a man who has died by falling on his knife. It is an incident that Scout questions and which is resolved at the end of the play, changing how Atticus views people around him. The despicable Bob Ewell who clearly beat up his daughter is the man who "fell on his knife" after he attacked Atticus' children, knocking Jem unconscious and cutting into Scout's cumbersome costume as they returned home one night from a school pageant.

The action of this two-hour-and-fifty-minute play including one 15-minute intermission is fast paced and the clever scenery, much of it on rollers and moved by the players, accommodates this seamless schedule of scenes. One concern this reviewer had when she realized the play would be in the huge Kennedy Center Opera House was would intimacy be sacrificed. No, the acting was excellent  and drew the audience in. Hats off to production director Bartlett Sher. Perhaps the only element of the production that didn't meet these high standards was the original music by Adam Guettel. The play opens with a gray tone lighting and a background music which didn't enhance that metaphoric suggestion relating to  how truth and morality lay in the murky gray zone and neither did the music develop in such a way that the listener could identify a repeating theme.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through July 10, 2022 at the Kennedy Center.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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