I parted company with most of my colleagues in my Wall Street Journal review of Aaron Sorkin’s new stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose Broadway premiere I loathed. In the same column, I lavishly praised a very different kind of adaptation, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s off-Broadway production of Charlotte Moore’s musical version of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which has just closed.To read the complete column, go here.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged by cynics that those in charge of the estate of a deceased artist will go along with any scheme, however harebrained, that promises to increase its incoming cash flow. Nothing else can explain the supine willingness of the estate of Harper Lee to let Aaron Sorkin write a politically corrected big-budget stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and bring it to Broadway. Notwithstanding the widely reported back-and-forth negotiations between Mr. Sorkin and the estate, the result is a grotesque caricature of Lee’s novel, one at which anyone who loved “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a child will take offense—as well they should….
Mr. Sorkin has taken Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels), the idealistic small-town Alabama lawyer who dares to defend a black man (Gbenga Akinnagbe) falsely accused of raping a white girl (Erin Wilhelmi), and turned him into a naïve fool. Mr. Sorkin’s Atticus, it seems, is incapable of fully appreciating the total depravity of his racist friends and neighbors, a hookwormy gaggle of populism-spouting gargoyles (I’m surprised they weren’t wearing red MAGA caps with their KKK hoods) in whose underlying humanity he benightedly believes. Naturally, he must be set straight by Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), his sassy, wised-up black maid, and Jem (Will Pullen), his younger-but-woker son, who condescendingly assures the poor booby that “being polite is no way to win a war.” That sound you hear in the distance is Harper Lee turning over in her grave.
The novel is itself no masterpiece of subtlety. Flannery O’Connor nailed it when she said that “for a child’s book it does all right.” But in addition to perverting its spirit, Mr. Sorkin has done an inept job of putting it on the stage, rewriting Lee’s gentle tale of the coming of age of Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Atticus’ tomboy daughter, as a flashback-laden courtroom drama narrated in turn by Scout, Jem and Dill (Gideon Glick), their Truman Capote-ish playmate (all of whom are played by adult actors for no obvious reason). They laboriously tell us (A) what we’re about to see and (B) what we just saw, slowing the pace of the play to a somnolent crawl unrelieved by the cheap laugh lines and applause-sign sermonettes with which Mr. Sorkin has stuffed it up….