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Broadway tour offers new take on the iconic 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Scout and Atticus on porch from tour of To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Broadway Dallas
Melanie Moore as Scout Finch and Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch in the Broadway tour of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

More than 60 years after the classic novel came out, Atticus Finch remains one of the most beloved characters in literature. But a new stage adaptation on tour in Dallas makes changes some people may take issue with.

It's safe to say many Americans — high schoolers or older — can identify what film this publicity still came from, who the adult actor is, who he plays and what all of this is based on — more than 60 years after the film came out:

<em>To Kill a Mockingbird</em> was adapted into a film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem.
To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted into a film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem.

It is, of course, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (along with co-stars Mary Badham and Phillip Alford) in the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck won an Oscar for his performance, and Texas playwright Horton Foote received one for his screen adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 novel. Foote's personal papers happen to be at Southern Methodist University — including his annotated copy of Mockingbird.

Lee's novel about childhood in Alabama during the Depression won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than 30 million copies. Casey Cep, author of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,has said that for most Americans, Mockingbird has become a piece of "secular scripture."

As for Atticus, he's even had a biography written about him. And in the the legal profession, Lee's country lawyer has become a "folk hero."

In the current tour of Mockingbird opening in Dallas, Richard Thomas — the Emmy-winning actor famous from such TV series as The Americans and The Waltons — plays Atticus.

"I've had so many lawyers and judges come up," he said, "and say how Atticus was such an inspiration to them."

Basically, Atticus Finch has become an American icon.

And that can present difficulties — for an actor.

"Icons are unplayable, essentially," Thomas said. "Only humans play people on stage."

Richard Thomas in the tour of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

But Hollywood writer-producer Aaron Sorkin wrote this adaptation, which ran for more than two years on Broadway. Sorkin is known for his quippish, provocative and theatrical dialogue in such TV shows as The West Wing and films like The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Mockingbird involves an innocent Black man being accused of raping a white woman. Certainly, that keeps it relevant today. But Sorkin felt, to work as a stage drama, it needed some changes, including making Atticus not so perfectly noble.

"Aaron has made Atticus a wonderfully human character," Thomas said, one who's "flawed, has a great sense of humor." And he's frustrated, struggling to raise kids — with the help of the Finch family housekeeper, Calpurnia.

One reason Mockingbird remains so familiar to Americans is that it's a fixture on school reading lists — even as some boards and libraries try to remove the novel from their shelves.

Objections against the book began soon after it was published. One of the best known was in Virginia in 1966 — Mockingbird was charged with being "immoral." According to Understanding To Kill a Mockingbirdby Claudia Durst Johnson, the majority of such early attempts to keep the novel out of schools were in the South — because of the book's topic of rape, its coarse language and the implications of interracial sex.

But more recently, some legal scholarshave questioned Finch's entire approach to race and the law or his particular tactics. Meanwhile, the school board challenges have been over the book's repeated use of racial slurs — and the character of Atticus Finch.

Or, as Thomas summed up: On the left, "people say, 'We don't want another white savior story.'" And "from the right, people don't like to be reminded of Jim Crow. They don't like it to look bad."

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch in the courtroom in the Broadway tour of "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch in the courtroom in the Broadway tour of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

In this context, even Sorkin's "humanizing" changes may seem like they're diminishing a beloved hero. Thomas DiPiero is dean of Southern Methodist University's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and an expert on To Kill a Mockingbird. He said for many, Atticus remains an ideal of truth, justice and fatherly wisdom.

But if they re-read the novel as adults, DiPiero said, people may find Atticus and Mockingbird more complex than they remember. As Thomas said, people are often simply surprised that Tom Robinson's trial — which is a commanding part of the film — takes up only a few chapters towards the end of the book.

Harper Lee — who was living in New York City when she wrote the novel — certainly lends an appealing, nostalgic air to the small-town life of a young tomboy. But she also complicates that picture, DiPiero said, not just with racism and the rape trial, but broken families, domestic abuse and troubled outsiders like Boo Radley, the Finches' mysterious neighbor.

"There's no institution that she doesn't mess around with," DiPiero said. "And I think that's why this novel is so powerful."

For one thing, Mockingbird may have an upstanding lawyer hero, but in it, our legal system seriously fails. It doesn't protect the innocent Tom Robinson. And because the system fails, Atticus fears it may fail for other innocents as well — and he chooses to help cover up a killing.

"It matters so much that Atticus is irreproachable," DiPiero said. That makes it even more telling when, "in the end, he makes a decision that is technically illegal, but arguably more righteous."

Jacqueline Williams plays Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper. She appears with Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson, Stephen Elrod as a deputy and Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Broadway Dallas
Jacqueline Williams plays Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper. She appears with Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson, Stephen Elrod as a deputy and Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch.

Thomas says Mockingbird is "very much a story of the loss of innocence. And one of the brilliant things about what Aaron has done to the play is that it isn't just the young people who are learning about how the world works. It's actually Atticus as well."

In addition to complicating Atticus' character, Sorkin adjusts the balance between white and Black characters — expanding the roles of several Black figures, notably that of Calpurnia.

"He makes Calpurnia a much richer character," DiPiero said. "She's complex enough, but she speaks a great deal more than in the novel. You get a much broader perspective from her — and from the Black people in the novel who really don't have much of a voice."

As a member of the touring ensemble, Dorcas Sowunmi — who is originally from Houston and has an MFA from UT-Austin — plays several Black townspeople. Sowunmi says Sorkin has a knack for drawing out the complexities in characters.

But whatever he's brought to the story, Sorkin has also retained Harper Lee's feel for Southern life — something Sowunmi has learned while on tour.

"There are just certain lines that we're getting like an 'amen corner' on because it's a very Southern experience," she said with a laugh. "I think that people are identifying in the South in a different way than people in the Midwest and the East Coast."

That may be the case, but Richard Thomas believes To Kill a Mockingbird remains an essentially American story. It's about what we, as a nation, aspire to be.

And what we do when we fail.

To Kill a Mockingbird is presented by BroadwayDallas at the Music Hall at Fair Park through May 28.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.