NEW YORK — You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a shrewder choice for the role of Atticus Finch than Jeff Daniels. Daniels has played American vile (“Terms of Endearment”) and American vacuous (“Dumb and Dumber”), but he may be best at American virtue. Not the one-dimensional superhero variety, however; the wholesome qualities he projects are those of a person capable not only of action, but also of reflection. His gift for evoking tolerance is wrapped in charisma.
This attribute comes in extremely handy for all concerned in playwright Aaron Sorkin’s lucid, lump-in-the-throat new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which had its official opening Thursday at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. Preserving it as a good vs. evil story of Southern white injustice in the era of Jim Crow, Sorkin has added other virtues — in particular, more forceful personalities for the two major black characters: Calpurnia, Atticus’s housekeeper, played with winning irascibility by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Tom Robinson, the falsely accused defendant, in the haunting embodiment here of Gbenga Akinnagbe.
It’s useful to have an actor of a certain gold-plated integrity like Daniels when you take on a piece as deeply embedded in the American consciousness as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The novel is still taught virtually everywhere, even though its sensibility is paternalistic by contemporary standards: It puts on a pedestal — and the movie version, even more so — a white knight who selflessly fights for the oppressed. Lee’s narrative also tends to treat the submissive black people of Maycomb County, Ala., as all-too-grateful beneficiaries, if that’s the right word, of Atticus’s generous spirit.
And there’s something that may now feel too comfortably tailor-made for middle-class consumption, in the demonization of the story’s destitute, uneducated white accusers. They cruelly doom an innocent black man and exist on the extreme fringe of a white society run through with racism.
To build a play in 2018 on these notions requires a writer like Sorkin who can toggle between the radically different mind-set of 1934, when the story takes place; 1960, when the novel was published; and today. And if a decision is made that Atticus is the evening’s touchstone, then having an actor who effortlessly conveys a bedrock fair-mindedness, who entreats us to a belief in our own better natures, is essential. Sorkin reinforces the necessity of a towering Atticus by shifting the perspective away from his daughter, Scout, whose narration defines the voice of the novel and the 1962 movie version. On Broadway, Sorkin has Scout, in the person of adult actress Celia Keenan-Bolger, share the storytelling duties with her older brother, Jem (Will Pullen), and their best friend, Dill (Gideon Glick). For the way in which the device underlines how much of the play revolves around Atticus, Sorkin might as well have changed the bird in the title to “Finch.”
This proves to be a good thing for a big, conventional Broadway play with across-the-board appeal and the potential — rare these days, for a nonmusical — to run for years. Director Bartlett Sher has assembled a terrific cast, with juicy turns for such actors as Dakin Matthews (as the courtroom wise man, Judge Taylor); Frederick Weller (portraying Bob Ewell, the lowdown varmint-father of the accuser); and Jackson, a Tony nominee shoo-in for her careful externalizing of Calpurnia’s bristling dignity. Deserving of special praise is Erin Wilhelmi, for her turn as the pitiful Mayella, who accuses Tom of rape but is really the victim of her father’s abuse. Keenan-Bolger, Pullen and Glick prove impressive, too, under Sher’s meticulous guidance, as they subtly gearshift from childlike to grown-up and back again.
And so rather than Scout’s rite of passage, the play is Atticus’s, as he is wrenched from his faith in the goodness of humankind toward a more sober assessment of the limits of human decency. Sorkin cannot help but make his own politics manifest at times, through Atticus and others. The sense of the insidiousness of racism in the South, and the hypocrisy that the play suggests still lingers, is encapsulated by comments like those of supposed town drunk Link Deas (Neal Huff), who observes that “when horror comes to supper, it comes dressed exactly like a Christian.”
Tom’s trial, which becomes the focus of the second half of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a thread of the stage production from start to finish. Miriam Buether’s set, encased in the decaying walls of a courthouse, efficiently accommodates the “wagons” that roll on and off, transporting the porch and dining room of Atticus’s house. Courtroom tables and benches are whisked on and off, too, though the jury box always remains vacant: Are the absent jurors the ones for whom the audience sits in judgment? Or are we meant to think of ourselves as filling those empty seats?
“To Kill a Mockingbird” leaves no question about who the angels are in Maycomb County and who are not, although Atticus even has it in his empathy-drenched heart to offer up a word or two of compassion for a horror like Bob Ewell. The thing is, when these words are uttered by Jeff Daniels, you’re inclined to a conviction that kindness in the world is still possible.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; music, Adam Guettel. About 2 hours 40 minutes. $39-$450. At the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York. telecharge.com.