PROVIDENCE, RI — Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC)’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” exploring racial injustice in the small town South, this iteration written by Aaron Sorkin, is an unqualified triumph in every way.
Showing at Providence Performing Arts Center through February 11, the latest production of one of the most beloved novels of all time, is brilliantly written by the creator of television’s “The West Wing,” takes place in 1934 but contains eerie parallels to contemporary social attitudes about race.
Richard Thomas (John-Boy on the 1970s series “The Waltons”), stars as the genial lawyer Atticus Finch, who is asked to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (powerfully played by Yaegel T. Welch) accused of raping a white woman in Alabama.
Finch is initially reluctant to take on the case because he primarily handles land disputes. He is also a widower with two children, the rambunctious tomboy Scout (Scout Backus) and the hotheaded but good-natured Jem (Justin Mark).
Scout and Jem serve as the narrators of the story, which unfolds mainly in flashbacks. The courtroom is the focus of much of the drama, which pits Finch against an arrogant prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Christopher R. Ellis) determined to send Robinson to the electric chair.
Testifying for the prosecution is Bob Ewell (Ted Koch), a virulent racist and the father of Mayella (Mariah Lee), the alleged victim. Ewell is an angry man prone to yelling racial slurs at Robinson. Mayella proves to be just as hateful as her father when she accuses Finch of being a “race traitor.”
There’s a terrifying scene when a group of men wearing bags on their heads and armed with weapons, confront Finch outside the jailhouse where Robinson is being held. The situation appears grim until Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) show up and manage to drive the angry mob away.
Director Bartlett Sher keeps the action moving briskly (in a three hour show) and infuses the courtroom scenes with maximum tension. Miriam Buether’s scenic design gives the settings a convincing ambience.
Thomas’ Finch is a richly textured character with a dry sense of humor and a deep well of compassion. One of the show’s best scenes features Atticus advising his children to put themselves into Bob Ewell’s place in order to understand his motivations. Scout and Jem want to tear the man apart for his bigotry. Atticus notes that the racists in town are “our friends and neighbors.”
Finch doesn’t hate Bob and Mayella even though they lash out at everyone in the most unpleasant ways. He takes pity on them.
Thomas soars with Finch’s powerful closing argument in Robinson’s defense.
Jacqueline Williams is also compelling as Calpurnia, the Finch’s longtime housekeeper. Williams presents a woman who has kept her frustrations simmering below the surface for a very long time.
Greg Wood is poignant as Link Deas, known as the town drunk and who serves as a witness for the defense. Deas encounters Scout and Jem and reveals the tragedies he has suffered. The racism of others has impacted him as a white man in unexpected ways.
The power of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is its refusal to boil things down to right versus wrong, good versus evil. Finch tries to tell his children there is good in all of us, even if you have to look extra hard to find it in some people.
I’m not going to provide spoilers, but the outcome of the trial doesn’t go the way you expect. There are more tragedies and more suffering. Intolerance doesn’t fade away that easily.
Even though “To Kill A Mockingbird” deals with serious themes, there is a surprising amount of humor. Scout and Dill get to speak a lot of witty lines. Sorkin’s dialogue is smart and develops so naturally from the characters’ personalities. Most of all, the humor never undercuts the drama at the core of the story. Tom Robinson’s life is being jeopardized because of his skin color.
In 90 years, how much has really changed in American life? Black people and other minorities are still being brutalized by a flawed criminal justice system. Right-wing media personalities are spreading hateful conspiracy theories and calling for “civil war.” Immigrants are being vilified by some politicians.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” shows the best and worst of humanity. It humanizes the villains as well as the heroes. Atticus has an observant line of dialogue when Scout and Gem note the Civil War has been over for a long time.
To Kill A Mockingbird runs through Feb. 11. Providence Performing Arts Center. For tickets, visit www.ppacri.org or call the box office at 401-421-2787.
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