Intiman's Mockingbird and the search for the Perfect American Dad

There's an uncomfortable amount of innocence and ignorance in this revival of the Harper Lee novel, starting with that Perfect White Guy, Atticus Finch.
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Top: David Bishins (right) and Keaton Whittaker in Intiman's <i>To Kill a Mockingbird</i>. Bottom: Bruce Willis (right) and Haley Joel Osment in <i>Sixth Sense</i>. (Chris Bennion, Buena Vista Pictures)

There's an uncomfortable amount of innocence and ignorance in this revival of the Harper Lee novel, starting with that Perfect White Guy, Atticus Finch.

When David Bishins took the stage as Atticus Finch, in Intiman's new production of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, he looked to me like a stately Bruce Willis from the 1999 psychological thriller The Sixth Sense. After the play, I saw a poster for the Mockingbird movie and realized the physical appearance of Intiman's Atticus was modeled on Gregory Peck. How funny, I thought. Because my romantic awakening happened in the era of the '80s detective/romance TV show Moonlighting, my Gregory Peck is Bruce Willis. Willis is my Perfect White Guy.

Wondering whether I was totally off base, I Googled for movie stills and posters from Mockingbird and Sixth Sense. On the surface, the movies have nothing to do with each other. Willis' character doesn't even have kids. But the imagery is similar: the dark, gently receding hairlines; the stills with Peck/Willis looking children in the eyes and listening to their innermost fears; the posters featuring the enlarged faces of Peck/Willis staring off into the distance at an unknown dark problem, their 5 o'clock shadows just barely visible, their wisdom about our bogeymen turning their mouths into determined, manly pouts. Sort of a macho Jesus thing. They do the dirty work, devoting their lives to those who freak us out the most – at their own risk and peril.

OK, this is supposed to be about Intiman's revival, so I'll stop with the Bruce Willis stuff. It's kind of absurd. But do it yourself: Think of your own examples of the Perfect Dad in American literature, TV, or film. Do they have sculpted hair? Heroic jobs? Athletic physiques? Do they Believe That Children Are Our Future? Are they white?


Why are we attracted to these mythical, perfect guys? Why have our tastes changed just enough that we can make fun of the American Dad in our cartoons and TV commercials but a play that features Him is still so popular that it gets a double extension of its run at Intiman, even in progressive, intellectual Seattle?

I've spent a couple days thinking about it. The simple and obvious thing is, well, simple and obvious: The problems addressed in the play (poverty and racial hatred) remain unsolved. Duh. Digging beyond, why is it satisfying to watch Atticus deal with our problems so adeptly and heroically? Even though he loses?

His loss is realistic. (Spoiler alert! For the few who don't know: Atticus fails to convince a jury of his peers that his black client is innocent of a rape he clearly didn't commit. In 1935 Alabama.) Atticus knew he would lose, as did everyone in town. They all show up for the trial, but it's like a train wreck with an outcome pre-ordained by the laws of physics. The defendant, played by Sean Phillips, shakes with the terror of someone who knows his fate.

The only ones who believe that Atticus – and justice – will prevail are his kids (played with pluck by Nick Robinson and Keaton Whittaker). They're ignorant enough to use the "n" word just because their classmates do – a trend that, pathetically, has seen a resurgence. At the same time, they're innocent enough to believe everything will be OK. They have a right to that ignorance and innocence. They're kids. They have that '50s-'60s TV-kid combo of peskiness, cuteness, and occasional wisdom known to anyone who's seen Leave it to Beaver.

But what right do we have to that innocence and ignorance? In most American cities, those can be deceptively easy qualities for grown-ups to cultivate. In Seattle, if you have enough money for a car and a home north of the ship canal, it's a snap. If you must ride Metro, pop in your earbuds and it's still pretty cake. The richer this town becomes, the easier it gets – unless you're among those who are forced down and out.

So when we see an Atticus, on stage or in real life, we can let ourselves off the hook. We are not guilty by association. "I like that guy. I am like that guy. I would never behave like the townspeople of Maycomb. I'm a good person."

If you get pleasure from movies and plays that give you that feeling, Intiman's Mockingbird is probably a great way to get it. If race dramas make you feel guilt, anger, or discomfort, I still say you should see it. Sure, Mockingbird is full of stock characters. It can be embarrassing to find comic relief in the black mammy Calpurnia (played with dignity by Josephine Howell) and the privileged white kids who sass her. I found it more sad than funny, but I respect the actors for playing those roles with gusto, and the director (Fracaswell Hyman) for not shying away from those choices. Harper Lee wrote those characters to reflect how people interacted at the time, from her perspective. The truth of that power dynamic is shameful. But that shame is part of our legacy as a country, and it's right for us to remember it. Seeing it on stage may prompt you to recognize how those dynamics are still portrayed in contemporary TV and film – and in our offices, bus rides, and streets.

After the show, as the Subarus and Scions streamed out of the Seattle Center parking garage, my husband and I trudged under Aurora to catch a No. 5 bus northward to Phinney Ridge. A woman dressed poorly for the rain told us we'd just missed it. She asked if we minded her smoke; she squinted against the rain as she stuck her thumb into traffic – she wasn't there to catch a bus. Then our own bogeymen arrived: guys who scowled and paced under the trees in the greenspace behind the bus stop, a feature surely planned by people who don't take the bus at night. My husband and I stood still for half an hour, not moving even to check our watches until we were safely on the bus. Where was our Atticus Finch then? Back at Intiman, taking off his makeup and his three-piece suit; maybe popping in his earbuds for his own walk home.


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