SCHENECTADY — Many years ago, I was sitting in a college theology class keeping a watchful eye from the sidelines on a heated debate between two classmates. The subject of the battle was responsibility and truth. The spark of the skirmish escapes me now, but what I do remember was the complete silence that filled the room when one of the two — who at this point was pontificating something about “confusion and subsequent revelation” — accused the other of behaving “like Scout trapped in the ham.” When the aggrieved combatant admitted that he had no idea what that reference was that was from, demanding of his accuser “the book, chapter and verse,” most of us in the room groaned. As did the professor, who then uttered the oft-heard cliché to the about-to-be pilloried student, “Kid, yes, there’s the Bible, but another book required to read before you die is Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ” When the kid admitted that he never read it, the rest of us were audibly astonished, until the professor added it to the syllabus … for the whole class.
I will go out on a limb and suggest that most of us are familiar with the goings on during that hot summer of 1934 in Maycomb, Alabama. That we all have been introduced to the genteel Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (here played by a superb Richard Thomas) before; his children, truth-seeking 14-year-old son Jem (a splendid Justin Mark) and 10-year-old tomboy daughter Scout (a puckish Melanie Moore). My guess is that most of us hold dear Scout and Jem’s summer-time pal, the odd and owlish Dill (a wonderful Steven Lee Johnson) and the household’s mother earth, their maid Calpurnia (a clear-sighted and sagacious Jacqueline Williams). Most of us have sat in that hot and stifling courtroom before witnessing Tom Robinson (Yeagel T. Welch) be condemned to a horrible fate by an oily Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) and his tortured daughter Mayella Ewell’s (Arianna Gayle Stucki) vicious lies and hate. And I am quite sure that most of us know why Scout was dressed as ham.
If none of this is familiar to you, you have a book to read, or at least a magnificent production to see.
For those of us who cherish the book and/or film of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there is no need to worry, Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of Lee’s classic Southern Gothic novel is just plain smart, damn smart. Sorkin has managed to carefully capture the story’s themes and memorable characters, polishing them up in his own unique, matchless style. Parts of the story that perhaps had gone fuzzy or forgotten, have been burnished and displayed with a luster that makes us feel we are witnessing something new — and that’s no easy feat for such a well-told tale. There are modern touches for today’s sensibilities that have been added, but they take nothing away from this classic, only gilding it with a glow which makes the story shine and vibrate. For example, the play starts with the trial. The tension to the story is still present, just slanted just a bit differently, and maybe better. Additionally, the maid Calpurnia is now more of a character, still warm, wise and wary, but now shares her feelings plainly and with less of a filter — allowing her to become a complete nurturing presence and challenge to Atticus — becoming less of a device. Sorkin explores Dill’s world a bit more, allowing us additional clues as to why he is the way he is … and why he can be so annoying. Also, in a bold move, Sorkin has scripted the characters of Jem, Scout and Dill to be portrayed by adults. This does not distract in the least, and enhances the richness of the tale. High praise goes to the three actors, Moore, Mark and Johnson, who deftly allow this illusion to captivate.
Harper Lee crafted Atticus Finch as a man of uncompromising morals. Here, Sorkin explores a bit more of the character’s fears and uncertainties and Thomas shades the character with a humanity that is remarkably approachable and real — making the pedestal we have placed Atticus on just a bit shorter. Thomas’ Atticus resonates viscerally, different from those that came before. It’s extraordinary.
Bartlett Sher’s direction is clean and pointed allowing the memory rush we wished for and wonderfully illuminating things we may have forgotten or misremembered. The only downside of the production is its design which is a mixed bag, with Jennifer Tipton’s artful lighting being the most successful element. But if that’s my only quibble, it’s a small one. The silence from the audience during the courtroom scenes was noticeable — not a peep, cough or cell phone. Everyone enraptured, and remaining so, until they jumped to their feet at the final curtain, just the way it should be.
This watchman is telling you to go. I’m placing it on your theater-going syllabus. No excuses, but no book report.
WHERE: Proctors Theater, Schenectady
WHEN: Through June 19
HOW MUCH: $20 to $100.50
MORE INFO: 518-346-6204 or www.proctors.org