A deeply sad, yet miraculously optimistic, To Kill a Mockingbird at the Academy of Music

Although retired since 2014, I still relish opportunities to teach, write, and share opinions.

Race, class, rape, incest, gender identity, murder, and child abuse collide in this new retelling of Harper Lee’s American classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Listed as “A New Play by Aaron Sorkin,” directed by Bartlett Sher, this To Kill a Mockingbird comes to us from years of success on Broadway, starring the incomparable American actor Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch.

For most of the drama, three children narrate the events of one summer in a small town in 1934 Mississippi immortalized by author Harper Lee in her 1960 novel. We meet the Finch family: Atticus, an attorney; his son Jem; daughter Scout; and a boy named Dill who is spending the summer with his aunt. We also meet the judge, townspeople, and even get to know many of their colorful lives.

Atticus Finch is a widower who has depended upon his maid and cook Calpurnia, of whom Scout tells us helped raise her and her brother and her father, too. It falls to Calpurnia to have the best one-liners to occasionally lighten the relentless sadness of the drama. Jacqueline Williams is astonishing as Calpurnia. She is understated when necessary, and fierce when required to be. As the three children, all three actors shine. Melanie Moore as Scout, Justin Mark as Jem, and Steven Lee Johnson as Dill. Yaegel T. Welch is ideal in the role of Tom Robinson.
Richard Thomas inhabits the skin of Atticus Finch, the eternal optimist. His often repeated mantra to his children and everyone else is “You never know a man until you get under his skin.” This turns out to be both deeply ironic and flawed. As Calpurnia says at one point, Mrs. Dubose was an evil woman when young, and she is worse now. Then, Atticus realizes he never knew his neighbors, preferring to think of them as intellectual aristocrats rather than cowardly sheep who fearfully unite to sentence Tom Johnson to the electric chair, so as not to cause trouble.

Harper Lee died in 2014 at the age of 103. She denied she was a lesbian, yet Scout is the personification of a strong, no nonsense child under the age of 11 who hates all things female, especially dresses and marriage. Dill is a sensitive boy who is wise beyond his years with a questioning mind. The point when Atticus confronts Dill about Dill’s life of abuse brings one to tears. There is no more poignant character than Arthur (Boo) Radley portrayed by Travis Johns. This entire production will astonish you, and stay with you for days and months to come. Don’t miss it.

The Academy of Music has posted a warning concerning To Kill a Mockingbird. As many of you know, it is perpetually on the list of banned books. It’s clear talk on race hatred, rape, incest, lynching, child abuse, and questionable morals on resolving the attempted murder of Scout, present many points to argue for days. So the management states the subject matter is only suitable for those over age 12, with caveats.

To Kill a Mockingbird is now on the Academy of Music stage in Philadelphia until July 24.

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