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  • Writer's pictureArts Angle Vantage Journalist

Sorkin’s play ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ renders a painful story with flashes of comedy, surprise

By Adam West | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

Atherton High School, Class of 2025

The story of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” now more than 60 years old, has a new presence with Aaron Sorkin’s play to make audiences care about the characters’ hardships and be able to grapple with the real-world issues it dramatizes.

"Most of the audience members know the story and are coming with a sort of hope to experience some of the things that they remember from reading the book and watching the movie," said Yaegel T Welch (Tom Robinson).

Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch) and Yaegel T. Welch (Tom Robinson). Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

Given this familiarity, audiences still care about the fictional characters in Sorkin’s play. Audiences were gripped by the events unfolding on stage at the Kentucky Center's Whitney Hall on June 22. That was opening night for a six-day run of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which was a Broadway hit after it opened in 2018.

The story of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has transcended the decades, with many having learned about it in their youth. However, many of the audience, including me, had not grown up with lawyer Atticus Finch, tomboy Scout Finch or ever-doomed Tom Robinson. In this new play, Sorkin works to endear audiences to his version and these characters.

“Aaron has done such a beautiful job with the adaptation of sort of throwing people off their axis in the very beginning,” said Melanie Moore (Scout) in an interview before the Louisville run. “They're expecting to see one thing, but from the moment the curtain opens, it's something different. And so, they have to sit forward instead of just sitting back and saying, oh my God, I love this show.”

Sorkin does this with comedy — the play often had everyone laughing. The jokes hit the mark. The comedy gave viewers a broader range of emotions, including sadness, frustration, and joy. For example, during the show, there are very few times when Scout’s friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson), and Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) meet and hilariously Dill repeats his full name — over and over until Atticus tells him to stop. During the second half, a powerful, emotional scene happens with the pair coming closer after the trial has worn down everyone.

Melanie Moore (Scout Finch) and Jacqueline Williams (Calpurnia). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

Atticus’ philosophy of goodness is another source of humor with jokes about how Atticus believes that there is good in everyone and how fighting is not necessarily the answer. These comments lead Atticus to genuinely question his philosophy.

Welch, who played Tom Robinson on Broadway before joining the tour, described two kinds of audience members — those who know the book and those “who know nothing about it.”

Nonetheless, he adds that Sorkin’s play is always “going to be a surprise."

The surprises come early as the play establishes each character with unique quirks, backstories, and relationships. Scout says Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) and Atticus act like siblings, reminding her of herself and Jem (Justin Mark). In the very next scene, Calpurnia and Atticus talk like brother and sister. Atticus says that it has seemed to him Calpurnia has been angry toward him, and tension rises as the play develops. Even Link Deas (Jeff Still), a small character in the book, gets an entire backstory. He seems like a comedic caricature of a town drunkard until that tragic narrative is revealed. When Atticus has had enough of the events tied to the trial, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) comes to taunt him, Atticus snaps and goes against his beliefs, surprising.

Travis Johns (Boo Radley), Melanie Moore (Scout Finch), Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris) and Justin Mark (Jem Finch). Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

The historical context that inspired this play and its characters is still timely. Even local legal experts agree.

“The issues of racism in the judicial system continue to be relevant,” said Joanne Sweeny, a law professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law. “It's not as out in the open as it was in the 1930s, but Black defendants are still treated disproportionately harshly by the criminal justice system.”

The play hits hard on relevant concerns — societal racism, rape, an unfair trial, classism, and so much more. Basic stories of its characters — someone defending a Black man, the raging racist, the kids trying to find their way in a complex world — are archetypes that populate our real world.

The main characters confront hard truths and are forced to grow. Atticus confronts his beliefs about all people being good. All three of the children must learn about the evil around them and we see their reactions to it. Jem and Scout want to fight tooth and nail, even though that may not be viable. The only difference is, these characters have roughly three hours to grow and show growth while regular, run-of-the-mill humans have lifetimes.

As the play makes its tour, it is just as intriguing to former cast member Shona Tucker, the understudy for Calpurnia on Broadway and now professor and chair of the University of Louisville’s Department of Theatre Arts.

“It's still magical,” she said. “It tells a story so simply and yet it moves and captivates. I'm still fascinated by it. I've gotten to watch it since I've stopped doing it. And God — the pictures it keeps creating in your brain, they stay with you.”

Adam West, a senior at Atherton High School, is an actor who has been a part of Kentucky Shakespeare’s Globe Players program for two years and has acted and assistant-directed several productions with his high school theater department.

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