Aaron Sorkin’s version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” painfully relevant

After nine Tony nominations and a pandemic-induced paralysis, Aaron Sorkin’s new take on Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is striding into the Buell Theatre.

The Jan. 24-Feb. 5 Denver shows from the touring Broadway production feature Emmy winner Richard Thomas (“Ozark,” “The Americans,” “The Waltons”) as fearless Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, with Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning writer Sorkin filtering Lee’s 1960 novel through his rapid-fire dialogue, humor and social consciousness.

Since its 2018 debut, many critics and audiences have praised the production, directed by Bartlett Sher, for making the story about tragic, deadly racism in 1930s Alabama feel new again. While it paused production in January 2022 with intentions to continue, the play won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon following its final performance on Jan. 16. But Sorkin and Sher have already moved on to adapting “Camelot,” giving local theatergoers a crack at seeing the touring version of “Mockingbird.”

We caught up with Sorkin, 61, and Thomas, 71, this week in advance of the Colorado shows presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Two separate phone interviews have been combined and edited here for clarity and length.

How do you put your stamp on something that’s been seen thousands of times on stage?

Sorkin: Well, my first draft was terrible. I tried to swallow the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it to a stage without harming it. So it was like a greatest hits album done by a cover band. I couldn’t just do a Harper Lee impersonation, so I wrote it (in my voice). It ended up sounding like the way I write, but with a Southern lilt.

Q: It seems extremely difficult to write dialogue that straddles both the book and contemporary politics. 

Sorkin: It was right in the middle of our Broadway run that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered and the Black Lives Matter protests erupted. So in the book, for example, the character of Bob Ewell is simply a terrible racist, and I’ve made him a member of the local Klan. But I wanted to make him sound chillingly, frighteningly real, not like a mustache-twirling cartoon character. I went on the internet, and almost every word Bob Ewell speaks is from the comments section of a Breitbart article. That’s how I made sure it sounded real and was relevant — not just to the 1930s, but today.

Thomas: (Sorkin) wanted to take it out of the realm of the “white savior” story. And he did another thing, which is absolutely fantastic for theater audiences and actors who play Atticus: He took (Atticus) off his pedestal and brought him forward. He’s given him a great sense of humor, thank God, and all of his apparently unassailable virtues are interrogated. If it’s a loss-of-innocence story about children, it’s also loss of innocence story for Atticus. He ceases to be this kind of king figure, and is now more approachable and teachable.

Q: Outside of reviews or sales receipts, how did you know this version was connecting with people before it went on the road?

Sorkin: A couple of weeks before we had to shut down because of COVID, the Broadway company performed in front of 18,000 public school kids at Madison Square Garden. And right up until the moment that the lights came down, I was sure this was going to be a well-intentioned disaster. How could it not be? These kids were being let out of school on a Wednesday afternoon in a basketball arena. But it ended up being the most profound experience I’ve ever had in a theater. It’s why I became a writer. These kids were rapt. You could hear a pin drop at times.

Q: What made them that way?

Sorkin: It’s the only audience where most of the people have had no contact with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” so they’re experiencing the story for the first time. Ordinarily, we’re playing to a mostly white, mostly affluent audience, but this was a very diverse one. They didn’t see Tom Robinson as a tragic figure. They saw him as someone on a hero’s journey.

Q: How does this version add to people’s appreciation of the story?

Sorkin: On stage, (child character) Scout is talking directly to the audience. The kids have a relationship with the audience and in a way they’re going back over the book and asking some questions that we wished we could have asked in eighth grade. Another thing the audience will see when the curtain goes up is what looks like a warehouse that’s fallen in disrepair over the last few decades, with broken windows and harsh lighting. Before we get to the courthouse, before we get to the front porch, we need a sense that we’re coming back and visiting something that hasn’t been visited in a while.

Thomas: Now, some people will say ‘I don’t remember this or that,’ and that’s fine because it’s an adaptation. People always go into theaters with expectations. Sometimes they’re frustrated and sometimes they’re thrilled. But the most important thing is that five minutes in, people are just participating in what’s in front of them and not going down the checklist of comparisons.

Q. How hard was it finally getting this Broadway show to the point of touring?

Thomas: We’ve had a lot of COVID, understudies, and understudies going on for understudies. We’ve had people come in from New York to fill in, and thank God the whole COVID experience has never shut us down. (Director) Bart Sher has made this a very mobile production and had an amazing sense of community on stage, and the resilience is astonishing.

Q: Richard, you’ve been on and off Broadway stages since you were 7 years old. How does this role compare to some of your others?

Thomas: It’s certainly one of the greatest parts I’ve played. It’s wonderfully written and has the emotional and intellectual depth and scope and duration and challenges of any of the big Shakespearean parts. The musicality and cadence of it are a pleasure, and the dialogue is delicious. This play is in (Sorkin’s) heart, not his head. And if you invest yourself in anything, you’re going to make it your own.

If you go

“To Kill a Mockingbird” plays the Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St., from Jan. 24 to Feb. 5. Tickets are $35-$135; check ticket availability at denvercenter.org or by calling 303-893-4000.

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