“Killing a Mockingbird”
Reimagining an iconic novel for the stage without changing the essential story is a difficult task, but that’s what Aaron Sorkin (known for ‘The West Wing’) did with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ his 2018 play based on Harper Lee’s eponymous 1960 novel, which became the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck.
Stopping briefly in Chicago this month on its first national tour, the Bartlett Sher-led production is very well acted and generally successful, starring Richard Thomas (of John-Boy in “The Waltons”) in the starring role of small-town widowed attorney Atticus Finch. The structure, however, takes some getting used to.
While the novel is a coming-of-age story told by an adult Scout Finch looking back on her childhood, the play divides the narrative between Scout (Melanie Moore), her older brother Jem (Justin Mark), and their wise friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson). All played by adults more or less impersonating teenagers, the narrators set up the scenes and stories, addressing the audience directly before getting into the action.
This intercession is helpful, as Sorkin’s script is decidedly non-linear. It jumps back and forth between the central trial of a black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman and the events before and after. Indeed, it begins near the end of the trial, with the children discussing the death of Bob Ewell (Joey Collins), the victim’s fiercely racist father. Scout wonders how he came across his own knife, a mystery solved by an ending that delves into a sense of justice.
“Mockingbird” is set in 1934 in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, but Sorkin subtly updates it to resonate today. The most obvious change is that Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), the black man falsely accused of a crime he could not have committed, has a better chance of explaining his interaction with Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki). Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), Finch’s black housekeeper, also becomes a moral conscience, voicing opinions that are not out of place today.
As Scout points out, Atticus and Calpurnia have an almost brother-sister relationship, to the point that when she is rightly offended by something he says, he has to pester her to tell her what it was. It’s one of the many ways he’s portrayed as a flawed human being – a role that Thomas embraces in all its complexity. This Atticus believes so completely in the innocence of his client, in the efficiency of the judicial system and in the fundamental goodness of people that it leads him to miscalculate the outcome of the trial and its consequences.
He also has a parenting dilemma: he despises racism, but he believes that any man can be understood “if you crawl inside his head”. He teaches his children to be civil with everyone, even the bad guys, insulting Mrs. Henry Dubose (Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film). Atticus’ tendency to underestimate the evil in people has potentially disastrous consequences for his family.
Despite a slightly uplifting (slightly flat) finale showcasing goodness from an unexpected source, much of “Mockingbird” is quite dark. However, Sorkin spices up the dialogue with plenty of humor, including sarcasm from Atticus and witty comments from sympathetic Judge Taylor (Richard Poe) in the courtroom. Some of my favorite scenes are the quieter scenes revealing things aren’t what they seem, including an encounter between the teenagers and Link Deas (Anthony Natale), the town’s official drunk who has suffered big losses for not being racist, and between Atticus and Dill, whose family life is far from idyllic.
Miriam Buether’s atmospheric stage design has many moving parts to facilitate the many scene changes, and the hustle and bustle can get distracting. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting helps create the required moods, as does Adam Guettel’s original score, some of which sound like hymns. Sound by Scott Lehrer and period costumes by Ann Roth complete the effective decor.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” is a rare serious drama in a sea of touring musicals, but it’s easy to see why it belongs on moviegoers’ “must see” lists.
James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St. Until May 29. $35 – $149. BroadwayInChicago.com
In “Rasheeda Speaking,” the late Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s 2014 play about workplace racism, Jaclyn (Deanna Reed-Foster) returns to Dr. David Williams’ (Drew Schad) office after a five-day sick leave . Employed for only six months, she attributes her illness to toxins emanating from the photocopier, the laboratory and the environment around her. She fills the office with plants and even brings crystals for protection.
After a hundred minutes, her colleague Ileen (Daria Harper) is paranoid and the atmosphere has become irrevocably toxic.
Meticulously detailed by Johnson, the chain of events leading to a conclusion no one wanted is triggered by Dr. Williams, a smug white man who calls Ileen a “girl” and calls Jaclyn “Jackie.” Dr. Williams manipulates Ileen into taking notes on Jaclyn’s behavior to gather evidence to fire her, claiming he only hired her to please HR.
Ileen is reluctant at first, Jaclyn is a friend and does her job well But eventually agrees, partly because Dr. Williams promoted her to office manager – of the two-person office – and gave her a increase. Ileen is white and Jaclyn is black.
But the playwright isn’t going for mere black-and-white renditions, at least not in Shattered Globe Theater’s premier production, lovingly directed by AmBer D, Montgomery. Brilliantly played by Reed-Foster, who understudied the role in the Rivendell Theatre’s world premiere, Jaclyn is a working-class woman who’s just trying to get by, even if she’s not particularly easy to love. .
While her relationship with her colleague initially seems cordial, the underlying tension is palpable. She plays with Ileen’s head, such as regaling her with racist stories about her Mexican neighbors, either because she’s racist or because she thinks that’s what Ileen wants to hear. At the same time, she offers unwanted gifts and undue praise.
As Jaclyn’s fears of losing her job grow, tensions in the workplace increase. When Dotty Rose Saunders (Barbara Reeder Harris), an elderly patient with a pancreatic tumor, arrives for an early morning appointment, Jaclyn berates her for not registering on the first floor, even though she is walking with a cane. Ileen intervenes with Rose, whose own racism comes across in a comment about black people angry over slavery. Jaclyn tells Dr. Williams that she was just following the protocols Ileen taught her.
The hostility continues to escalate until Ileen, spurred on by her husband, begins carrying a gun around the office. Jaclyn’s frustration culminates in a long monologue – from which the play takes its name – about taking the Chicago Avenue bus to work among young professional white men who have nothing but contempt for black women.
Scott Penner’s scenic design nicely evokes a neutral office with off-white desks, blinds and a hallway leading to the exam rooms. Jackie Fox’s lighting adds an antiseptic edge that might make anyone who hates doctors uncomfortable, as do costume designer Rea Brown’s scrubs and other uniforms. Original music and sound design by Christopher Kriz complete an anxiety-inducing scene.
Except for the length of Jaclyn’s monologue and a slip towards the surreal near the end, “Rasheeda Speaking” is a compelling look at unfortunate office politics that is firmly grounded in reality, and much of the credit goes to Reed-Foster’s performance.
Shattered Globe Theater at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Until June 4. $15 – $45. 773-975-8150, sgtheatre.org