It’s understandable if some folks were skeptical at first when the news was released five years ago that a new version of the legendary play “To Kill a Mockingbird” was going to hit the stage.
Harper Lee’s story has long been dear to many hearts — including my own. I even met my wife while I was performing in a production of the show — playing Atticus Finch, of course.
So, who would dare to tamper with the story that won Lee a Pulitzer Prize and Gregory Peck an Academy Award? The story is even a part of the Library of Congress.
Aaron Sorkin, that’s who. And his new twist on the classic tale is to be every bit as celebrated as the original, with both delivering a powerful message of the dangers of blind hate and bigotry.
You can see his version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as it runs through Oct. 1 at Bass Performance Hall and is presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth.
But then, when you’ve been nominated for four Academy Awards (winning for “The Social Network”) and nine Emmy Awards (winning five for “The West Wing”), writing and creating magic is kind of your thing.
The challenge Sorkin took on was finding a way to get audiences to revere a reworking of a masterpiece that was already revered. The overwhelming majority of Americans read the book in either middle school or high school and just as many, if not more, have seen the movie.
Smartly, Sorkin did not try to make a better version. He made one that stands on its own merit for today’s audiences.
Most of the elements of Lee’s story set in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1934 are carried over. However, there is a new order to things, along with some new touches to give the update its own identity.
Whereas the original telling has the young daughter Scout as the story’s central character, Sorkin puts her father Atticus (played by Richard Thomas, Emmy winner for the iconic TV series “The Waltons”) in the protagonist role. Also, the play begins with the famed trial that has Atticus defending a black man named Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) accused of raping a white teenage girl.
Of course, that is also the key portion of the novel and movie, but it isn’t brought into the story until characters are already established. Sorkin wastes no time jumping right into the action, with Scout (Maeve Moynihan), her brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their friend visiting for the summer, Dill (Steven Lee Johnson), acting as narrators. In the original, Scout did all the narrating.
The show is directed by Tony Award winner (“South Pacific”) Bartlett Sher, who was also nominated for his Broadway direction of this version. His strong leadership is certainly helped by having a great actor like Thomas smoothly taking Atticus through all the stages this version allows.
And Thomas does indeed plunge in the role with an obvious passion. With Sorkin’s impeccable script and his on-the-spot performance, we see sides of Atticus not previously released.
This Atticus is more lighthearted, for example. And he takes full advantage of Sorkin’s clever humor that knows just when to stop for the best delivery, spinning on a proverbial dime to something more serious.
This Atticus can also get heated and react to that anger. We see the best evidence of this in a scene between him and Bob Ewell (Ted Koch) later in the show.
But Sorkin left in plenty of the understanding and level-headed Atticus that folks grew to love over the years. He still handles situations with his children as a loving but stern single parent would, and he still looks for the best in even the worst people, always trying to understand what made them what they are.
The character of Scout is still a front-and-center role and Moynihan plays it with the perfect amount of spark. She even interacts with the audience in a charming way that a lot of young actors — or even older, for that matter — might not be able to pull off without distracting from the seriousness behind her.
The supporting cast is nothing less than solid throughout. As Tom’s accuser Mayella Ewell, Mariah Lee solicits both pity and disgust. She, Koch and Thomas create several tense courtroom moments so necessary to the story without ever going over the top.
And Welch delivers arguably the show’s most emotional moment when his character of Tom snaps on the witness stand and dares to tell a jury of all white men that he helped Mayella because he “felt sorry for her.” Remember, this was in the deep south in the 1930s and such words were akin to a death knell for a young black man in that time.
Judge Taylor (Jeff Still) has some zingers of his own delivered in a timely fashion. When Atticus is dealing with a difficult Mayella on the stand, the judge responds to an objection by saying, “If anything, the witness is badgering defense counsel.”
Sorkin’s script sharply connects problems of then with challenges that still sadly face some parts of society today. In one scene when Atticus is told of how white people need to make sure they fight for survival, he responds, “So far my race has been surviving effortlessly.”
In another scene when he tells his maid Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) that Maycomb just needs more time to grow out of racism, she asks “How much time does Maycomb need?”
Earlier in the show, setting a tone, Scout notes that Cal was not allowed inside the church for the funeral of Scout’s mother.
And in a moment of art imitating life, Atticus delivers perhaps the most powerful statement in the entire show — one that transcends the stage and can be applied in numerous circles: “We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding!”
Performing Arts Fort Worth presents Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Where: Bass Performance Hall, 525 Commerce St., Fort Worth
When: Now through Oct. 1.
Book drive: When you attend a performance, you are invited to bring one or more new or gently used, age-appropriate books for middle or high school students. Donation boxes are at both Bass Hall entrances.
A couple important things to note: This is not a show for children, even if they have read the book or seen the movie. There is racially explicit language and costuming, references of sexual abuse, and brief gunfire audio.
The first act is around 90 minutes long.