Actor Jeff Daniels has been making guest appearances on network news programs specializing in political opining. He is not seduced by the newfound respect he enjoys. His role as Atticus Finch in the Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” allows him to say, quietly, with grace, words defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a rural Alabama of the 1930s.
Daniels understands the gravitas his role brings to the stage. He speaks of audiences, sitting in silence in quiet expectation. The play-goers know what is coming because they have read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” but the tension is palpable in the theater, Daniels said, and so is the communal respect for a character in a book with courage in his veins.
Tonight, the Broadway theater faithful will gather to present awards for the best drama of the season, to an outstanding musical, to directors, writers, actors and producers. There are high expectations “To Kill A Mockingbird” will be the Tony winner for best play. The production has garnered nine nominations, including one for Jeff Daniels as best actor.
Aaron Sorkin, who swallowed hard and allowed he would not survive his role as the writer adapting “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the stage, spoke the truth. “The book is perfect,” he sighed, “and all I have to do is not screw it up.”
There is such reverence for the story of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book wears its age with quiet sureness. I once sat in on a summer session of a class on American literature offered to former students and seekers who came to a college on a mountaintop, (literally), and sat in a classroom to hear a professor share his views.
When “To Kill a Mockingbird” was not mentioned in his lectures, a middle-aged former student raised his hand. He asked about the omission. The professor shrugged and said he felt the plot of the ‘Mockingbird’ book was a bit “over-stated.”
A frosty silence fell over the room of 20 adults who had never met before that day. The former student pressed his case, but politely. “May I ask where you grew up, professor?” he ventured. The teacher, sure of his scholarship, said he had spent his early years with his family in upper New York.
A collective sigh was heard. “Well then,” the school alumnus smiled, “you don’t know about the struggles in small Southern towns, the neglect of segregation, folks so poor their children had no shoes, farmers who paid doctors with watermelons left on a back porch.”
The professor was wise enough to listen and counter with what he did know. He said, “You’re right. Maybe I need to give ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ another look.”
“Thank you, professor,” the summer visitor then explained. “Atticus Finch is our hero, a good father who defended a black man when he could have walked away. This book belongs to the South.”
No one challenged him, but, of course, the book, sold around the world, now belongs to a global audience. The play, in time, will spread its wings and be seen in regional theaters, coming home to the South as traveling road companies bring its pages to stages from Louisiana to Tennessee.
One scene will be committed to our memories, regardless of place and time. An actor, playing an old black preacher, sitting in the balcony of a small-town courtroom, will turn to an actress playing the part of ‘Scout’ Finch, Atticus’ Finch’s daughter, and say, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father’s passin’ (by).”
Whether we’re in Montana or Rhode Island, we will watch that moment and feel the respect due to a small-town lawyer who looked beyond race to seek justice.
The quiet courage of Atticus Finch still resonates in these fractured times. On a book’s pages, his “servant leadership,” conviction laced with compassion and devotion, reminds us HOPE is more than the name of a town in Arkansas.