Storytelling school

‘Mockingbird’ full of great stories and masterful performances

One of American literature’s most beloved characters, lawyer Atticus Finch, comes to life in Playhouse Square during the nationwide tour of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, starring famed actor Richard Thomas.

Thomas, 70, plays a small-town lawyer fighting racial injustice in Maycomb, Alabama, in Aaron Sorkin’s theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

Thomas, better known as John-Boy in the 1970s television drama ‘The Waltons’, received applause from the Playhouse Square audience when he entered as Atticus on Wednesday night. He last performed on tour in Cleveland in “The Humans” in 2018.

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In this fine production, which both does the novel justice and further fleshes out some key characters, the storytelling is compelling and nimble. At the same time, it also lets the characters and the audience breathe in both the heavy and beautiful moments.

The drama, set in 1934, follows attorney Atticus as he defends black man Tom Robinson against false accusations of raping a white woman in the Depression-era Deep South.

Lee’s novel, loosely based on people and events from his childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. He won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize.

Sorkin’s stage adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2018, has the story’s three children — Scout, Jem, and Dill — telling the story, starting with the lone narrator Scout in the novel. This dramatic technique makes Atticus the heart of the story and brings the trial of the drama to the fore.

Unlike the long depictions of childhood games in the book, this stage show quickly arrives at Tom’s trial and jumps in time. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a play about racial injustice and the loss of childhood innocence, includes mature subject matter, racial slurs, and guns.

Young adults Melanie Moore, Justin Mark and Steven Lee Johnson play the Scout kids, his brother Jem and his friend Dill with great believability. They create the children’s mannerisms and speech but also bring out the great intelligence and curiosity of this trio.

Of particular note is the fiercely funny Moore, who creates a diminutive but feisty presence as Scout. His scout often leads the charge with Jem in their protection from their lawyer father, who is threatened and ostracized by other members of the community.

During the trial scenes, the three children circle around the action as onlookers. One of Moore’s most memorable moments comes when Scout, as if looking back in her memories, approaches Tom’s accuser Mayella Ewell and stares at her after Mayella has had a big outburst.

Arianna Gayle Stucki creates a chilling portrait of young Mayella, looking dead in her eyes and assuming the cowering posture of a battered woman.

The excellent Thomas strikes a dry, puzzled style as Atticus, whom Scout describes as the most honest and decent person in Maycomb. Atticus chooses to fight racial injustice in his quiet, gentlemanly way.

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson in National Tour of "kill a mockingbird," playing at Playhouse Square until May 15.

But in this stage adaptation, it becomes much more apparent that even Atticus is flawed. He reaches his breaking point in a new scene where he uses ugly language and uses physical force against an antagonist.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is full of graceful narration and scene changes, set to original music by Adam Guettel with organ anthems. Miriam Buether’s set is remarkable, with a large Finch porch that comes together in two halves with a hanging roof, window and door. The distressed and decaying back wall of the courtroom is present in every scene.

In this show, we don’t see a fire at the neighbor’s house and Aunt Alexandra doesn’t live in the Finch house, both of which are in the book. And without the child characters constantly fixating on mysterious neighbor Boo Radley, he becomes a smaller presence in the story.

Sorkin creates new dialogue which, thankfully, helps us get to know the key characters better. This includes false defendant Tom, played with quiet dignity Yaegel T. Welch, who when first meeting attorney Atticus asks him to let him speak and then shares his fears for his children.

Black cook Calpurnia, played by the wonderfully dry Jacqueline Williams, also stands on equal footing with Atticus, challenging and ribbing him in a way that Scout describes as a sibling relationship. Strengthening both her personality and their relationship to a relationship that goes beyond servant-employer adds more depth to this story.

Sorkin also draws on young Dill’s background, creating additional layers of loneliness and sadness for the boy who visits Maycomb every summer.

Other notable additions to the cast include deaf actor Anthony Natale, who signs much of his dialogue as Witness Link Deas, and actress Mary Badham, who played the young Scout in the 1962 film. , on stage now as a hateful old lady, Mrs. Henry Dubose.

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The narrative only falters with a rushed tale of an attack on Atticus’ children in the dark night. We don’t see the attack, and the initial depiction of the violence comes across as a postscript to the story rather than a major, shocking moment.

That being said, this fine production of Lee’s great American classic is a must-watch that includes lots of love and humor. It is heartening to know that 18,000 New York City public school students saw the play at New York’s Madison Square Garden less than a month before the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, creating the highest attendance at a single performance of a play.

Art and restoration writer Kerry Clawson can be reached at 330-996-3527 or [email protected]

Richard Thomas plays Atticus and Melanie Moore Scout in the national tour of "kill a mockingbird," now at Playhouse Square.

Details

Drama: “Killing a Mockingbird”

Or: Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, Cleveland

When: Until May 15, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

On the scene: With Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore, Jacqueline Williams, Justin Mark, Yaegel T. Welch, Steven Lee Johnson

In the wings: Aaron Sorkin, adaptation; based on the novel by Harper Lee; Bartlett Sher, Director; Adam Guettel, original music; Miriam Buether, set designer; Ann Roth, costume designer; Jennifer Tipton, lighting designer; Scott Lehrer, sound designer; Brian L’Ecuyer, production manager; Sari Ketter, Associate Director; Kimberly Grigsby, musical director; Campbell Young Associates, hair and wig design

Cost: $20-$129

Information: playhousesquare.org or 216-241-6000