Critic’s Notebook: Deep Dives Into Justice From Shakespeare, Wilde and Atticus Finch

Because so many of Shakespeare’s plays engage similar questions, the canon seems especially ripe right now for reimagining in this way. (I did not see the festival’s “Julius Caesar,” with Seana McKenna in the title role.) But Shakespeare, in his commodiousness, has always been amenable to updating. Not every play is, as Stratford’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” demonstrates.

The dramatization of Harper Lee’s novel presented here, written by Christopher Sergel around 1969, is creaky to begin with. It is told retrospectively, with the adult Scout, now known as Jean Louise Finch, as the narrator.

This invites many of the clichés of the memory play — musical underlining, frozen tableaus — which the director Nigel Shawn Williams faithfully indulges. More unexpectedly he begins the action with an audiovisual collage of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to let us know we will be looking back on the events of fictional Maycomb, Ala., in 1935, from the very real perspective of racial agony in 1968.

With such a dramatic frame, the familiar story of Atticus Finch — a small-town white lawyer defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape — comes off a bit wan. That isn’t helped by the moseying pace of the adaptation, which often feels literary rather than theatrical. The trial itself, bizarrely broken in half by the intermission, isn’t even much of a highlight.

Still, when it gets out of the way of Lee’s storytelling, this “Mockingbird” can sing. The scene in which white-hooded Klansmen show up at the jail where Atticus is guarding Tom is terrifying, the more so when the preteen Scout recognizes one of her neighbors just from his voice and innocently says hello.

But despite the performances — Jonathan Goad makes a flinty Atticus and the child actors are, thankfully, not overpolished — the production never realizes the power of the novel. Instead it reaches for contemporary relevance that, however valid in theory, does not suit Mr. Sergel’s take.

It may be that no stage adaptation — unless the Aaron Sorkin version opening on Broadway in December succeeds — can capture in a couple of hours the density of ambivalence of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is as much about accommodation as justice.

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