Aaron Sorkin’s Brilliant New Adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis

Justin Mark “Jem”, Richard Thomas “Atticus”, Melanie Moore “Scout”, and Steven Lee Johnson “Dill”. Photo by Julieta Cervante

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of those rare books that most of us have read at least once thanks to junior high English classes. I would rank it in my top 10 perhaps even top 5, it’s one of the few books that I’ve read more than once, and certainly one of a very small number that I’ve read more than three times. There’s a reason we’ve all read it and why many of us love it, it’s a stone cold classic. There’s a danger in adapting something as cherished as To Kill a Mockingbird is, there are some many ways to go wrong. The more beloved the source, the more critical the audience is of changes or even interpretations that veer away from the audiences own. Aaron Sorkin is a beloved Playwright, Screenwriter and Director and he has brought his immeasurable talents to this adaptation which is faithful yet irreverently original at the same time. The spirit of the book remains intact as does the plot, but the way in which it is told and where the focus lies has evolved. This is also a very, very funny script, and funny isn’t a word I’ve ever used to describe To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t let that scare you off, Sorkin hasn’t added a bunch of one liners. The humor is appropriate and mostly comes from the unique way in which the story is told. This is, To Kill a Mockingbird as you have never experienced it before, and it is not to be missed.

The story is narrated by Scout, Jem and Dill, but this adaptation changes the focus away from Scout and more upon her father Atticus’s journey. Sorkin fractures the narrative by staging scenes out of order, flashing forward and back throughout the stories timeline. The kids appear in the scenes but also narrate from outside the narrative, often speaking directly to the audience. All of this works, because we all know this story, we are never lost or confused because 95% of us know this book or at least the 1962 movie. Being able to assume that so much of your audience is coming in with that knowledge allows Sorkin to take chances and play with the narrative. The fourth wall breaking was a risky gamble but Sorkin ends up holding a winning hand. First off, everything from the book is here and it’s all handled wonderfully. So much of what surprises and adds humor in this production is the things that were added. The additions enrich and enliven the work without changing the story or spirit of this American classic. I was nervous going into this because in the last couple of years I’ve seen some favorite books and movies recieve terrible adaptations by people who fundamentally did not understand the essence of the work they were adapting. It’s clear that Sorkin knows the heart of this work and not only does he bring it to life, but he makes it feel fresh and new at the same time.

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch isn’t just a bit of name recognition stunt casting, he is perfect as Atticus. Let’s face it, we all see Gregory Peck when we think of Atticus Finch, as a Producer or Director you’d be foolish not accept that. So it’s a smart choice to cast someone who is going to resemble in a physical way the character we’ve all embraced in our minds. Thomas fits that bill, but then he brings his own talents to bear on the role and makes it the Atticus we know, but with a sense of humor. Thomas brings the wisdom and the nobility that is so ingrained in the role but isn’t afraid to embrace the humor Sorkin has added into the script. It makes the character even richer and more layered as a result. There is one bit of stunt casting that is so platent, so obviously cheesy, and so wonderfully fun. Mary Badham plays the small role of Mrs. Dubose, the woman down the street who doesn’t have a nice thing to say to Scout or Jem. Badham played the role of Scout in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for that film. Shameless? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! Who doesn’t want to see that? The one role that is going to be a bit of a audience divider I suspect is Melanie Moore as Scout. Her delivery is unique, it comes off like a blending of Alabama and Brooklyn. I initially found it very jarring, but I became accustomed to it after about 30 minutes. It’s tough because all of the actors playing the three kids are not kids. Moore, is playing the youngest and probably the largest and most front and center role of the three kids. Scout speaks with confidence, she is a character that calls it like she sees it. Also when she is speaking as her character removed from the timeline of the play, it’s fair to assume she’s not the young Scout but one from a later time and place. It’s a tricky role and one that some are not going to take too. I was won over but do have to admit, it wasn’t perhaps the best way to play the part. I do want to mention a couple of other cast members quickly that were just perfect. Steven Lee Johnson as Dill, of all the three kids who get to address the audience and comment of the proceedings, got the greatest laughs. Dill is always a bit of a character, Johnson really finds the perfect way to bring out his eccentricities but also brings a tenderness to him and intelligence. Dorcas Sowunmi plays the Finch’s housekeeper and the role is given some spunk by Sorkins script, Sowunmi plays the passive aggressiveness with just the perfect bit of sass and pride. That character, as much as any, speaks the audience’s thoughts as if Atticus is our conscience, Cal is our sense of fairness.

Bartlett Sher directs what feels like a very modern production. The scene changes happen smoothly and are almost always covered by having our attention drawn downstage by the young narrators. The show is two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission, but it doesn’t feel long at all. Sher keeps everything moving without a wasted moment, I think the moving back and forward in the plot narrative wise, and having the characters jump out of the narrative to comment on the action, gives it a sense of anything can happen, which is amazing. That’s a testament not only to Sorkin’s script but Sher’s direction as well. The sets are a wonderful representations of the courtroom and the front porch of the Finch home, among other locations. Miriam Buether’s sets moved in and out seemingly effortlessly, the Finch porch comes in from each side of the stage in two halves becoming one long porch in the blink of an eye. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design adds a classic look to the sets, giving us that sense of a sepia tone past, which feels right where this story lives in our minds.

To Kill a Mockingbird looks like it’s close to selling out, if this is a book you’ve loved, do yourself a favor get one of those last remaining tickets while you can. I have a feeling this is one of the rare non-musical tours that could have sold a second week in the Twin Cities. It’s great and you owe it to yourself to see it while you can. To Kill a Mockingbird runs through February 19th as part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust Broadway on Hennepin Season for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/to-kill-a-mockingbird-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2023/

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