All Rise

This Sunday, I went to see To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway.

First off, I love going to the theatre the way some people love going to church. Atticus, played by Jeff Daniels, known in the big screen for Dumb and Dumber, describes the courtroom as his church. Like church, when I see theatre, magic takes place and I am transported.

When I watch the actors on stage, I am reminded of how much of our human behavior is constructed. Our mannerisms are geographical and cultural so when I saw the likes of Jeff Daniels and Celia Keenan-Bolger dawning a Southern accent, I was reminded that we all, to a certain extent play a part. Some are more conscious than others of the world as a stage. As actors, we get to walk around in someone else’s skin. The child characters in the play are played by adult actors. I loved the choice because as the audience, we see the complexity of their minds, but the adult characters only see them as children.

Whether you’re an actor or in the audience, I am reminded in this production that theatre remains to be the classroom for compassion.

Scout and Atticus Finch, played by the inimitable Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeff Daniels

Scout and Atticus Finch, played by the inimitable Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jeff Daniels

Aaron Sorkin’s script is adapted from Harper Lee’s beloved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. At the opening of the play, Scout, played by Keenan-Bolger tells the story of a time when the jury was asked to rise to stand up and do what’s right. The jury seats on stage are empty. We fill their place. We become the audience-jury.

I believe that Sorkin wrote the play for the jury in all of us. I also believe that this play is for adults. Like in Lee’s novel, we are asked to question the way we listen to the disenfranchised — in this play, children, the economically disadvantaged, and people of color. The disenfranchised need our protection. They need our friendship and compassion. I sympathized with Scout’s confusion of the adults surrounding her. She wondered why women called her ugly and disapproved of her being smart. I felt the painfully neglected heart of the Finch’s fast-talking fast-friend, Dill Harris, who grew up with a mother who would lock him in a room at night, with an absent father. He befriended his books and used his wit and was an eternal optimist. When Bob Ewell or Mayella Ewell explode in the courtroom with viciousness, I too, felt their anger. I felt their powerlessness and the hopelessness of their situation. When Tom Robinson was shot 5 times for trying to escape prison, I was mortified at how many times innocent people of color have died under racial discrimination and how often injustice prevails. He was married and a father of two young children, who was just trying to help Mayella because he felt sorry for her. The jury, made up of poor white farmers, deliberated he was guilty, not because he did rape Mayella, but because they wanted to punish him for being sorry for a white woman.

As the jury-audience, we are given a privileged view, privy to a secret, given an elevated perspective (literally, I sat in the mezzanine and figuratively) to judge from where we sat, knowing that we’d go home after the play deliberated, knowing that we’d probably eat a meal in comfort, while injustice was happening somewhere else in the world.

Daniels will play Atticus until November when Ed Harris takes over the part. Daniels will have played the role for a year, which is unheard of. In today’s star struck Broadway climate, famous actors only play roles for a few months and move on to their next blockbuster. It’s understood that stars will sell tickets, so they often cast stars to open a show, inevitably the star leaves and is replaced by another. To me, this cast is wonderful and the play, directed by Bartlett Sher, known for directing classic Broadway musicals, is breath-taking.

After the final bows, I confess I was terrified that the world we live in today is still very similar to Harper Lee’s America in 1960. I was moved. I can’t speak for the other thousands of people that sat and watched with me in the dark silence of the Shubert that Sunday but we all rose to a standing ovation.