Is it still possible to approach To Kill A Mockingbird without bringing the immense baggage that the title now carries all these years after becoming perhaps the most significant novel of the second half of the 20th century? Watching Aaron Sorkin's highly effective adaptation for the stage this weekend at New York's Shubert Theater leads me to conclude that the answer is yes. This is because the underlying subject--race--remains a major part of our culture and because the leading character--Atticus Finch, the lawyer who accepts a court appointment and believes he can achieve justice--is still compelling.
Last year a sequel to the famous novel by Harper Lee was published posthumously amid questions regarding both its provenance and its quality. It apparently (I haven't read it) presents Atticus as somewhat less than the saint portrayed in the renowned movie by Gregory Peck. Despite his proclamations in the movie (and original novel) that justice can be achieved and times have changed in the Deep South, the sequel suggests that he was more conflicted and wasn't in favor of change coming too quickly.
Even without that added input, however, the current rendition is moving and inspiring, while providing excellent characterizations through outstanding performances by the entire cast. The set design and production are excellent, reflecting traditional Broadway standards. Jeff Daniels may well give us a fairer portrayal of Atticus than the majestic Peck. My only complaint was not the appropriately strong Southern accents but the players' tendency to drop the ends of sentences or project them toward the side or rear of the stage.
Sorkin has managed to capture the novel's powerful impact even though by this time, most of us are familiar with the plot and many of the characters. In the end, Mockingbird stands as a formidable picture of our times because it confronts its challenging subject so well, showing all the different angles and impacts it has on each character.
On a lighter note, I was mightily surprised to enjoy the musical Tootsie so completely. My recollection of the Dustin Hoffman movie is now vague so I had no problem accepting the talented Santino Fontana in the title role. The book here is clever and often uproariously funny. That to me may be why this musical captured the Tony award for best musical. Others in the cast are also excellent: Sarah Stiles as the lead's ex-girlfriend performs what could easily be a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song with great spirit and charm.
The whole topic of men dressing as women to save a thus-far dead-end career is now freighted with our current battleground of sexual politics and culture. Even so, this show demonstrates that there's still room for enjoyment of clever lines and lyrics, accompanied by imaginative music. My weekend included these two exciting evenings in the theater--and even more, the weather in New York was palmy and pleasant. It remains challenging to walk through Times Square either before or after showtime, and that's as it should be.