A fresh yet faithful Mockingbird

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Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch(center) in Broadway tour of Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes
Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch(center) in Broadway tour of Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Broadway tour presented by Broadway in Boston at Citizen Bank Opera House, Boston; The Bushnell Performing Arts Center, Hartford, Connecticut, June 27-July 2

Plays adapted from seminal novels are always a great challenge, and Harper Lee's iconic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" is all the more so. After all, Gregory Peck earned a best actor Oscar in the fine 1962 film with a performance that brought gravitas and singular stature to Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch. Recently (pre-Covid) savvy screen and television writer Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men" and "The West Wing" respectively, among others) focused on the viewpoints of Finch as well as those of his children—Scout and Jem—and their visiting friend Dill Harris in a 'new play' identified on the Playbill cover as "Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird."

The result—in a strongly acted tour—may seem like "Aaron Sorkin's To Kill a Mockingbird" to purists, Still, the play does bring a welcome present day exploration of Lee's insights about race and poverty even as it essentially remains faithful to the novel's narrative.

Under the inspired direction of Broadway talent Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific," "Fiddler on the Roof"), Sorkin's play looks at those insights through the eyes of the thoughtful children as much as the feelings and efforts of Atticus for his black client Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape.

Melanie Moore has the right combination of spunk and inquisitiveness as Scout, while Justin Mark captures Jem's righteous bluntness. Steven Lee Johnson catches Dill's vulnerability and charm.

Richard Thomas rightly portrays Atticus as a well-intentioned small-town lawyer with limitations rather than a larger than life mentor. Those limitations emerge with stunning clarity in exchanges between Atticus and his perceptive maid Calpurnia. In the standout exchange, Atticus declares, "I believe in being respectful" (even to racist witnesses and the like)—to which Calpurnia reacts: "No matter who you're disrespecting by doing it." Jacqueline Williams finds all of Calpurnia's eloquence in a play that gives her wise and racially wounded character additional opportunities—as Maya Angelou might say—to rise.

At the same time, Thomas brings notable warmth and tenderness to affecting scenes of caring with his children and Dill. Thomas and Johnson share a particularly poignant moment as Atticus comforts Dill as though he were his father.

There are also standout performances in support. Yaegel T. Welch captures Robinson's dignity and inner strength in a brilliantly understated effort. Richard Poe has Judge Taylor's consistent fairness in court while Joey Collins is properly brutal as incestuous racist Bob Ewell. Arianna Gayle Stucki balances daughter Mayella Ewell's wretched state and her racist charges against Robinson. Mary Badham (Scout in the film) makes a welcome return as tough-talking Mrs. Henry Dubose. High praise goes to designer Miriam Buether for residential and courtroom sets that speak volumes about racism and poverty.

There is a dramatically soft psalm-singing ensemble that strangely includes the likes of Mayella. Still, Sorkin's adaptation and the superb tour bring a timely reminder—as many African-Americans continue to confront systemic racism—that full justice for all Americans is a dream that remains deferred.

Huntington Theatre, 2022-2023 season, beginning with Sing Street, August 26-October at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, August 26-October 2. 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org

Since the 2004 opening of the Calderwood Pavilion—built and operated by the Huntington Theatre, this critic has referred to the South End showplace and surrounding venues as Theater District South. After all, over the years these performance places—the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the Calderwood Pavilion—home of SpeakEasy Stage Company, local companies visiting the Boston Center for the Arts and the Huntington Theatre itself—have presented top flight productions of many original plays and musicals as well as area premieres of Off-Broadway and Broadway fare.

For example, Lyric Stage has opened a revival of the 2013 Tony-winning musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"(through May 22), and SpeakEasy Stage is offering the first non-Broadway production of the 2020 Tony-winning play" The Inheritance" (April 22-June 11.Wheelock Theatre has provided plays and musicals with a lot to offer children and adults alike—currently "The Wizard of Oz" (through May 1). Even Broadway greats like Audra MacDonald, Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters and Alan Cummings have performed at Symphony Hall thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston. Truly Theater District South has become as important a destination for seasoned and new Hub area theatergoers as the historical Boston Theatre District.

Now Theatre District South will become even more important with the fall opening of the renovated Huntington Theatre as the regional Tony Award winner celebrates its 40th anniversary. Rightly acclaimed for staging the entire August Wilson canon, the Huntington venue will fittingly reopen with the great playwright's seminal drama "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." The ambitious eight play Huntington 2022-2023 season—including two new musicals and four new plays—will begin at the Calderwood Pavilion's' Wimberly Theatre with the pre-Broadway run of the musical "Sing Street" (August 26-October 2). For more information about the upcoming season, go to huntingtontheatre.org.