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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
It’s 1934 in Alabama, and a Black man named Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) is on trial for a crime he did not commit. He faces a jury of entirely white peers and will face the electric chair if convicted. So begins “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which runs from April 5 to 17 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.
The show, after debuting this past November on Broadway, is now embarking on its first national tour. Based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel of the same name, the play tells the story of the trial and highlights the lives of the defense attorney Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) and his children, Jim (Justin Mark) and Scout (Melanie Moore). The adaptation manages to capture the very essence of the novel and it skillfully grapples with the age-old question: Who deserves to be treated with respect?
The play puts an interesting spin on the source material — the scenes jump around from place to place in a non-linear fashion, often returning to the courthouse. Moreover, it does a wonderful job of reshuffling the most important moments of the novel into a well-paced sequence that highlights the main tensions of respect, innocence, and racial injustice, all the while showcasing the nuances of these issues. The non-linear timeline allows for contrasting scenes to be pitted right up against each other, enabling the audience to see many sides of the complicated narrative.
One of the play’s greatest strengths is its ability to showcase a wide variety of emotions by including several humorous and childish moments along with the somber, serious, and sad ones. The jokes, delivered perfectly with the right amount of pause and emphasis, often have the audience roaring with laughter. Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) and Calpurnia (Jacquline Williams) in particular nail their executions, Dill with his boyish energy and Calpurnia with her no-nonsense deadpan eliciting loud chuckles.
Aside from the humor, the show also nails its delivery of emotional scenes and pivotal moments convincing enough to move anyone in the audience. These moments are often punctuated by a weighty sentence deftly capturing the essence of the situation at hand. Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, who feature in many of these moments, are welcomed additions to the original storyline which adds greater depth to the situation.
While the play overall stays true to the original story, the onstage Atticus Finch is different from the book protagonist people have grown to love and respect. He is not the perfect person he is sometimes made out to be: He is portrayed as a bit naïve with his idea that everyone, no matter what they think or have done, deserves respect. What's more, he fails to understand the extent of the prejudice Tom Robinson and Calpurnia face. In some aspects this is a welcomed change, which makes for a much more realistic portrayal and adds further color to the issues the play explores. No one in the story is entirely right in their beliefs, illustrating the real-life complexity of such situations. However, some tenderness between him and his children — arguably one of his best and most loved traits — are lost.
Visually, the show is incredible. The sets offer phenomenal depth; the scenes set in the house manage to create both an inside and outside world. Alongside lighting and costumes, it perfectly complements the mood of the scenes and transforms the stage into the 1930s Alabama of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The set transitions are very smooth and natural, with the acting seamlessly carried through. The final house scene, which caps off the show flawlessly, is emblematic of the show’s strengths. Despite featuring many characters, it manages to portray their interactions naturally without overwhelming the audience. The characters are able to move from within the room in the house to the outside, creating an effect where Scout (Melanie Moore) is inside the house explaining certain events to a group but also able to slip out during her story and act out the events for the audience, all the while telling her story without missing a beat.
Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” masterfully delivers a new look on a classic tale. There is never a dull moment in the show and every scene and every character is an integral part of the narrative. The story artfully tackles serious, relevant questions, and the cast delivers brilliantly, making this run of the show a must-watch.
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