Jeff Daniels’ shoulders shift downward ever so slightly. He’s turned away from the audience, facing his client on the witness stand, so we cannot see his face. But that silent, almost imperceptible slump has the impact of an iron door slamming shut. It’s testament to the generous intelligence of both this superb actor and his unerring director, Bartlett Sher, that this critical moment in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird derives its power not from a facial expression but its opposite, a twinge of body language succinctly conveying the fact that a catastrophe has just occurred.
We are in Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, but we might as well be fanning ourselves in the gallery of the county courthouse in Macomb, Alabama, where the trial of Tom Robinson is underway. A black man of unimpeachable consideration and honor, he has been accused of beating and raping the white daughter of the most bellicose racist in a town teeming with bellicose racists. The judge has persuaded Atticus Finch, also a man of unimpeachable consideration and honor (not to mention a willingness to embrace the human condition in all forms good and not good), to defend Tom, who is obviously innocent of the charge.
You know the rest. Harper Lee’s novel has remained a bestseller since its publication in the summer of 1960, and the Oscar-winning film adaptation two years later, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus, is one of the durable masterworks of American film performances. Doubtless you read the book in seventh grade, and maybe came back to it as an adult, only to be stunned by its intelligence, its layers upon layers of insight into life in the American Deep South.
In the courtroom scene, Atticus has finished his interrogation of Tom, and for the first time he seems confident of winning. But then the prosecutor takes over, hammering Robinson with snide, lurid questions about his motives for helping the woman with chores – chopping wood and the like. Why would he do all that with no expectation of reward?
And finally, badgered, Tom replies that he felt sorry for her. In the film, the camera shifts on the words “sorry for her” from Tom to Atticus, whose eyes briefly widen, then back to Tom and then back again to Atticus, whose face now is a mask of sorrow. He knows, and he signals us with that look, that no jury of white men will tolerate a black man showing pity for a young white woman.
Aaron Sorkin, the playwright and screenwriter who wrote this adaptation of the novel, has taken on a different path to that moment. He adds a scene in which Atticus is preparing Tom for his testimony, and in it he explicitly warns Tom never to say he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. It is one way of differentiating Broadway Atticus from Hollywood Atticus. Daniels is cooler, sharper and tougher than folksy, laconic, turn-the-other-cheek Peck. (In another scene, Mayella’s father Bob Ewell confronts Atticus out-of-doors and spits on him. Hollywood Atticus stands his ground for the moment, wipes his face, and then walks off to his car. Broadway Atticus spins Ewell around in an armlock and considers breaking his bones.)
And so when, in the play, Tom says he felt sorry for Mayella, we don’t need to see Atticus’ face. We already know what the consequences will be. Daniels and Sher create something even more poignant than that tight shot of Gregory Peck. Instead, we see Jeff Daniels’ broad shoulders sink ever so slightly, telegraphing everything. And for the first time in my experience of Aaron Sorkin’s Mockingbird, I felt involved in this American tragedy.
I would not feel that urgent pang again, that night. Sorkin’s work is always interesting, and by turning our view of Atticus just enough on its axis to make him a new hero, the writer has taken an interesting risk. All of the performances are up to that risk, notably Gbenga Akinnabe as Tom, LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the housekeeper Calpurnia, Fredrick Weller as Bob Ewell, Dakin Matthews as Judge Taylor and Neal Huff as the misunderstood outlier Link Deas. The production, designed by Miriam Buether, lit with exquisite delicacy by Jennifer Tipton and with time-and-place specific clothes by Ann Roth, is equal to the task as well. It’s very, very good.
But it’s never completely involving, and I think I know the key reason why. It was Harper Lee’s genius to tell her story through the eyes of Atticus’ seven-year-old daughter Jean Louise, known as Scout, as she and her older brother Jeremy, known as Jem, and their newfound friend Dill witness and sometimes take part in the events as they unfold. In the novel, Scout’s observations are at once preternaturally astute and full of the awe of inquisitiveness and discovery. In the film, Scout was played by Mary Badham, a child of the South who had never acted before.
In this Mockingbird, three adult actors have been cast in the childrens’ roles: Celia Keena-Bolger as Scout, Will Pullen as Jem and Gideon Glick as Dill. They are superb actors, but they are not superb children. There is in this telling no sense of wonder or discovery, triumph in small miracles or disappointment in unconquered challenges. Moreover, the relationship between Atticus and his beloved, motherless children is as compelling in its physicality as it is intellectual in a father’s determination to raise his offspring to be intelligent, compassionate people in a culture that abjures intelligence and compassion. At the Shubert, this crucial duality has mostly gone missing.
Take that connection out of the equation, and you are left with a good, not great, story. This Mockingbird is intelligent, compassionate and eminently respectable. It’s a very good, not great, show.