The Rapidian Home

To Kill A Mockingbird remains shattering and tragic

Broadway Grand Rapids brings an American classic to the stage with a funny, moving script by Aaron Sorkin and a great central performance by Richard Thomas.

/Broadway Grand Rapids

When the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) lost a reservation clerk, America gained a masterpiece.

Harper Lee, an Alabama native turned New York City transplant, had taken the position at the airline as her day job, but her real dream was to write. And she was good — good enough that her friends donated enough money for her to live on for a year. She turned in her notice at BOAC and got down to her real work.

Expectations weren't high for Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird. The team at J.B. Lippincott & Co., her publisher, told her she would likely sell thousands of copies, but not many thousands. Lee didn't allow herself to set her hopes too high. In 1964, the year of the last interview she ever gave, she said she'd never expected the book to be successful.

"I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement," she said.

And someone did. The book sold 40 million copies and counting; it won the Pulitzer Prize; it was made into a beloved film. In 2008, Aaron Sorkin, creator of the television show The West Wing, wrote a new theatrical adaptation. His version is onstage through April 28 as part of Broadway Grand Rapids' 2023-2024 season.

The play, like the book, begins with Scout (Maeve Moynihan). But while the novel begins in remisicence ("When he was nearly 13, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow"), the play begins in mystery ("Something didn't make sense"). A precocious girl, Scout is bothered by the fact that Bob Ewell (Ted Koch) supposedly killed himself by accidentally falling on his own knife. Those unfamiliar with the story will soon learn, to their distaste, exactly who Bob Ewell was.

The play moves back and forth in time and location, shifting from the abstract space in which Scout narrates to the courtoom where her father, Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) defends Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), a black man falsely accused of rape. Before long, Sorkin's ambitions for the play become clear: moving beyond Scout's intelligent but young perspective and into a consideration of Finch himself.

Immortalized by Gregory Peck in the film version, Finch can be seen as a reformer's dream: thoughtful, generous, brave, brilliant and, above all, decent — a man determined to see the best in others. But what good is seeing the best in others when they can't see it in themselves? This is, after all, a tragedy. The fact that the play raises such questions while never losing its dramatic immediacy is nothing short of remarkable.

Nothing short of remarkable, too, is Thomas's performance, particularly in the courtroom scenes. See how he approaches Mayella Ewell (Mariah Lee), Robinson's accuser: first as comforter, then as pugilist. Regardless of the outcome, it's impossible to watch that scene and imagine someone doing a better job of interrogation, just as it's impossible to be anything but riveted.

There's no such thing as a perfect play, and there's no such thing as a perfect translation across mediums, either. The play loses some of the book's texture. And, at times, Sorkin's humor (often used to undercut tension or horror) can have too modern a feel. Then again, the book itself is often funny, something we tend to forget. We forget because we're shattered. There never was a Tom Robinson, not really, but such is the power of the play that it seems to us that there was. Then again, wasn't there? Aren't there Tom Robinsons still?

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.