Theatre review

To Kill a Mockingbird and The Michaels

picasso jugglers.jpg
Picasso, Family of Jugglers, 1905

We had a theatrical double header this week, thanks to Julie. A completely unexpected opportunity on Wednesday to see To Kill a Mockingbird and today The Michaels at the Public. Both were moving, deep, rich, and satisfying. And both had realistic yet positive things to say about life lived humbly, domestically, and with integrity while hells not of our making rage and roil around us and threaten to swallow us up.

Both plays were exceedingly well written, well directed, and well acted. Both made me think and cry: two really good things to get out of theater, and the reason I’m writing this — so the messages they left me with don’t evaporate. Particularly in these days in which we live, and these nights through which we struggle, trying so often in vain to find the spark, the good, the right, the just, the way forward.

Mockingbird‘s spark is tolerance. Accept people without judging — but also, and most importantly, question everything rather than just accept. And in the light shone by tolerance and curiosity, prejudice and ignorance melt away.  These are tools Atticus passes on to his children. This was powerfully brought home by Nina Grollman’s Scout (in a truly wonderful performance) when her father is menaced by a mob of would-be lynchers as he guards his jailed client. Scout recognizes one of the hooded men and calls to him by name: a variation, it occurred to me, on the idea of humanizing yourself to an attacker by saying your name and not allowing them to make you an object. Here it served to harken back to Atticus’s explanation of mobs being made up of people. Scout calls the person out; he removes his hood and the mob disintegrates.

I was reading online just now about how Aaron Sorkin’s Atticus Finch differs from Harper Lee’s — that, as the play’s protagonist (rather than the novel’s Scout), he changes, moving from being an uncritical apologist for the inherent racism of his society to the steely, clear-eyed Atticus we know from book and movie. I have to say that that did not spark with me; if it made the play more relevant and timely for other viewers, that is all well and good. But what worked for me was how this family — Atticus and his two children, and the heartbreakingly poignant Dill (modeled here, apparently, on Lee’s own childhood friend, Truman Capote), and the resolute and impassioned Calpurnia (I cannot remember if in the book her relationship with Atticus is described by Scout as being like her own sibling relationship with Jem) — exchanged ideas, taught and nurtured each other, grew and respected and loved. I admired the values they shared with a small — but I hoped maybe someday growing — number of members of their community: tolerance, compassion, and a commitment to truth. And I loved, and took heart from, Atticus voicing a line Sorkin wrote in an opinion piece right after Trump was inaugurated: that our finest hour always follows our darkest.

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is a very different piece, but comes down — at least for me — to the same virtues of family and shared community. The threat to their status quo is the imminent death of the imposing matriarch Rose Michael, members of whose dance company and family have gathered to spend some time together. During the course of the two-hour, intermission-less play, the characters cook and eat (with intoxicating smells of baking bread and rosemary filling the small theater), talk and laugh, reminisce and plan, hurt and help, dance and sing. Conversations overlap, points are introduced and dropped and lost and picked up and lost again, with no particular aim; just the pleasure of chatting with old friends. Each character’s blind spots and weaknesses — and strengths and quirks — are lightly exposed and just as lightly accepted.

Near the play’s end, Kate, Rose’s partner, shares Rose’s plans for her funeral. She wants everyone to gather for a day and talk about her, share their memories and sing and dance and eat. And of course, that’s what the characters have just done. They do not resolve any of the conflicts or problems presented during the play’s course — any more than any of us do during a family gathering.

The takeaways: We cannot perhaps change the world, but we can question and challenge it. We cannot perhaps change each other, but we can touch and try. And we cannot perhaps change fate, but we can meet it clear-eyed knowing that we are and have loved.

* * *

I like to fix an image to my writing to set the tone and widen the perspective, and I spent a good half hour searching for something appropriate to cover these cathartic dramas, only to realize that quiet scenes of peaceful family life were too small and serene; the keyword “tolerance” yielded hokey posters of clasping hands and dove wings; my go-to impressionists and expressionists were, respectively, too airy and too troubled. Leaving me, and leading me, to Picasso. His Rose Period jugglers hit the note I wanted: a created and creative family, bound together by creed even more than by blood. All colors, all ages. Engaged and industrious, teaching and learning. The symbolism of flaming trees offset by a pure white horse. And against all this a dominant figure balanced precariously yet effortlessly on a spinning globe.

2 thoughts on “To Kill a Mockingbird and The Michaels”

  1. Picasso’s Family of Jugglers is the perfect painting! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the plays…I so envy your seeing TKAM and hope whoever played Atticus (Jeff Daniels?) didn’t disappoint. With regard to Calpurnia, she and Atticus didn’t come across like siblings in Lee’s book (that’s Sorkin), though she is a mother figure to Jem and Scout. Miss Maudie Atkinson (the Finch’s widow neighbor) is a more of a sister figure to Atticus (seeming mutual crush notwithstanding), especially in her relationship with Scout.

  2. We saw Ed Harris, but you could hear Jeff Daniels’s phrasing and mannerisms in every line — Sorkin knows his voice and definitely wrote this part with him in mind. But Harris was good and the play is so strong; plus the performances of Nina Grollman and Taylor French as Scout and Dill, respectively, were achingly memorable. That’s interesting what you say about Calpurnia (Miss Maudie isn’t in the play); because Scout remarks on the relationship when Calpurnia is introduced: that she and Atticus had known each other so long that they acted toward each other the way she and Jem did, which I thought a very nice way of elevating Calpurnia’s character. An important aspect of Sorkin’s Mockingbird is that the black characters have agency and a voice. And thank you for your comment about Family of Jugglers; I wasn’t sure it came across to anyone but me.

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