Review: Updated ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ play makes a fierce and powerful statement against racism

Justin Mark, left, Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore and Steven Lee Johnson in  "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Justin Mark, left, Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore and Steven Lee Johnson in the national touring production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
(Courtesy of Julieta Cervante)

Aaron Sorkin’s 2018 Broadway adaptation of the 1960 Harper Lee novel is playing through Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre


The first thing to know about the 2018 Broadway play “To Kill a Mockingbird,” now running through Sunday, Dec. 4 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, is that it’s no carbon copy of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel.

Nor does it resemble the 1962 movie, where actor Gregory Peck gave an Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch, the novel’s gentle-natured, small-town White lawyer who heroically but unsuccessfully defends Tom Robinson, an innocent Black man accused of raping a White woman in 1934 Alabama.

Playwright Aaron Sorkin took Lee’s poetic coming-of-age story about Atticus’ two children, Jem and Scout, and turned it upside down into a searing and powerful drama about racism, White privilege and Atticus’ downfall from meek and forgiving idealist into disillusioned and flawed realist and activist. In this version of the story, the novel’s two Black characters, Tom and the Finch family’s housekeeper Calpurnia, have a much-bigger presence and a more contemporary voice.

Yaegel T. Welch, foreground, and Rochard Thomas, left, in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Yaegel T. Welch, foreground, as Tom Robinson and Rochard Thomas, left, as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo by Julieta Cervantes
(Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Director Bartlett Sher’s touring production is lavish for a play, with a 24-member cast led by a wonderful and sensitive Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch. He’s genial and gentle in the play’s first act, then credibly explodes and crumbles in the second act, when reality dawns for Atticus that racism will always trump facts and innocence in the Jim Crow-era South.

Yaegel T. Welch gives a shattering performance as Tom, who fights for both his life and his dignity in court. Jacqueline Williams is wise and strong as Calpurnia, who confronts Atticus on his privilege and comments ruefully on the glacial pace of progress.

The play is narrated by the novel’s three youngest characters, who are all played with childlike humor, guilelessness and gawky physicality. Melanie Moore is quirky as the socially awkward tomboy Scout; as Jem, Justin Mark takes his character on a credible loss of innocence journey. And Steven Lee Johnson has a sweet, ethereal innocence as their gentle-hearted childhood friend Dill.

Scenic designer Miriam Buether’s weathered courtroom and Finch front porch scenery hint at the long decline of the South and a stylized “fire curtain” hides the stage before each act. In the ‘30s, asbestos-lined stage curtains were a common way to protect the audience from backstage conflagrations. Perhaps this fire curtain is a nod to that era, or it’s a reference to the house fire in the novel, where the town’s politically divided White neighbors join hands to rescue a neighbor from her burning home. Or maybe it’s about the play’s burning flame of White supremacy, which is sadly still aglow today.

I first saw this play on Broadway in 2019, but on Wednesday night, it felt like I was discovering it anew. Its call to action hits so much harder now in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The script includes dozens of uses of the N-word and other racial epithets, which hit like a hammer every time. And in the play’s climactic courtroom scene, Atticus turns away from the jury box and gives his final summation to the audience about the destructive power of hate, saying: “We can’t go on like this, we know. Let’s hasten the change. Let’s begin with justice.” Nearly 100 years after the fictional Atticus spoke those words, Black Americans are still fighting for justice and change.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1. 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego

Tickets: $35.50 and up