On stage, Lee’s ‘Mockingbird’ is lifted ever higher

Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

BOSTON – When acclaimed writer-director Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) was first approached about bringing Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the Broadway stage, he was convinced it was “a suicide mission.”

That’s because the relationship between devotees of Lee’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and the works themselves is very personal. I have family members who gather each year at a home for a “TKAM” viewing attired as a favorite – or in the case of the unctuous Bob Ewell – least favorite character.

There’s good news for both them and those encountering the work for the first time. Sorkin’s adaptation of  “To Kill a Mockingbird,”  now at the Citizens Bank Opera House through April17, can take its rightful place alongside the novel and the film. It is a satisfying, heartfelt. re-energized and transformed piece, albeit one that asks small-town lawyer Atticus Finch some serious question that neither Lee nor the filmmakers did.

Using Lee’s words as a template, Sorkin has crafted a piece that is genuinely funny – with the humor springing organically from the characters and their relationships.

At its core is Richard Thomas as Atticus, a widower doing his best to raise his kids with the aid of his Black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Jaqueline Williams), who emerges here as Sorkin’s conscience and a counterbalance to Atticus’ tendencies to try and see the good in all men – even the aforementioned Ewell.

Jacqueline Williams (“Calpurnia”). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Thomas has been a near-constant presence on the stage, TV and film since making his Broadway debut at 7 and then portraying John-Boy Walton in “The Waltons.” He earned a Norton Award for his work in the national tour of  “The Humans” that stopped in Boston.

Atticus is a well-known and respected local lawyer in the Jim Crow South – to be exact, 1934 Maycomb, Alabama — who makes the fateful decision to defend a young Black man named Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) who is falsely accused of rape by a young white woman. Many in the small town turn against him.

The story is told through the eyes of three children, played in this instance by older actors. With their talents, they quickly become the embodiment of the children in question: There is 6-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (a wonderful Melanie Moore); her 10-year-old brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their quirky but funny neighbor, 7-year-old Charles Baker “Dill” Harris (Steven Lee Johnson).

It is Scout who first engages us about the death of one Bob Ewell and tells us that there is something wrong with how “he fell on his knife” and it bothers her “like a pebble in her shoe.” She then sets out to unravel – like a young Nancy Drew — the life-changing events around the death.

Moore as Scout steals many scenes and Johnson is a hoot, but Mark as Jem is given the task of evolving and maturing while still questioning his father’s decisions and even his courage when it comes to standing up for himself and his family.

In a successful nod to the show’s roots, Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 movie, provides a solid comic turn as Mrs. Henry Dubose, the Finches’ acid-tongued, bigoted neighbor.

Sorkin, in an interview with The Boston Globe, said he decided the rape trial of Tom Robinson had to be part of the piece early on and that Atticus had to change during the course of the production.

That was behind the decision to enhance the part of Calpurnia, who questions Atticus when he says there is some good in all people — even a violent bigot like Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) — and that you can’t really know a person until you walk in their shoes.   “I know these people,” he tells her. “Not as well as I do,” she replies.

Acclaimed director Bartlett Sher, nominated for a 2019 Tony for his direction of this play on Broadway, has made no false steps in bringing 1930s, rural Maycomb, Alabama to life, and the sparkling production values give the cast every opportunity to thrive and succeed. Scenic designer Miriam Burther, costume designer Ann Roth, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and Adam Guettel, composer of the original score, were also nominated for Tonys for their work.

Sher knows when to step on the gas and when to pull back and reflect, and the staging of many key scenes – the harrowing courtroom drama featuring the testimony of pathetic Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki), Bob Ewell and the doomed Robinson and Atticus’s showdown at the county jail with the local Klan, have lost none of their power in the translation.

And it wouldn’t be “Mockingbird” without the kids trying to unlock the secret behind the mysterious Arthur “Boo” Radley (Travis Johns).

This “Mockingbird” is already the highest-grossing play in Broadway history, even with the extended timeout forced by the pandemic.

There was a brief moment in 2018 when it appeared a lawsuit filed by the Lee estate might derail the production, but it was, thankfully, quickly resolved. This play does nothing to change your appreciation of the book or the film. It is a tribute to their greatness.

The national touring production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Play by Aaron Sorkin, based on the novel by Harper Lee. Directed by Bartlett Sher. At the Citizens Bank Opera House through April 17. Broadwayinboston.com.

(l to r) Arianna Gayle Stucki (“Mayella Ewell”), Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”), Stephen Elrod (“Bailiff”), Richard Poe (“Judge Taylor”), Greg Wood (“Mr. Roscoe”) and Joey Collins (“Bob Ewell”). Photo by Julieta Cervantes