The adult Jean Louise Finch introduces the story, sharing her memories of growing up in Maycomb, Alabama, during the summer of 1935. Known as Scout when she was a young girl, she lives with her father, Atticus, her brother, Jem, and their cook, Calpurnia. At the top of the show, Jem and Scout discover Indian head pennies in the knothole of their neighbor’s tree. The tree is on the property belonging to the Radleys, a mysterious and reclusive household, and they are at a loss as to where the money came from.
Walter Cunningham stops by to bring Atticus a “payment” of hickory nuts. Scout is confused why he pays in such a way, and Atticus explains how difficult the Depression has been on the country folks and farmers. Jem tries to get Atticus to play football but is disappointed when Atticus says he is ”too old.” Jem struggles to understand the importance of Atticus’s job as a lawyer in town, as well as the fact he is much older than other kids’ fathers. But Scout feels he might just be “the bravest man who ever lived” as he interacts with others in town who are intimidating to the children.
Soon Scout and Jem meet Dill who has come to spend the summer with his aunt who lives next door to the Finches. Scout and Jem tell him the story of the Radleys, explaining that the youngest son whom they call Boo never leaves the house. Dill, fascinated, suggests they try to “make him come out.”
Atticus has a special relationship with his children. Jean Louise remembers how he took every opportunity to teach them something. However, their greatest lesson was about to emerge, and their world about to change when Atticus agrees to take on an impossible case: to defend in court Tom Robinson, a black man, when he is charged with raping Mayella Ewell, an impoverished white girl.
Scout and Jem discover more treasures in the knothole and decide to leave a thank you note to whomever is leaving them. Suddenly they notice a dog down the street that has “gone mad.” Atticus is called home and he arrives with the Sheriff who insists that Atticus be the one to shoot the animal. To his children’s amazement Atticus takes the dog down with one rifle shot. They start to understand there is more to their father than they realize.
The town is now starting to buzz with the news that Atticus is going to defend Tom Robinson in court. Some neighbors and townspeople have very strong feelings about whether or not Atticus should do it, and Scout asks him for more details. He says that though there is no chance of winning he still must do it to retain his self-respect.
As it gets closer to the trial, Tom Robinson is moved to the county jail in town. The sheriff is worried there might be trouble, and Atticus himself sits outside the jail to prevent the lynch mob from getting at Tom. Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak out of bed to see what is happening. Scout cannot resist going to Atticus, who is now surrounded by a group of men, including Walter Cunningham and Bob Ewell, Mayella’s drunkard father. The children refuse to leave, and actually help diffuse the situation.
The trial begins, and people from all over Maycomb County come for the occasion. The children cannot help but join in the throngs of people at the courthouse, although they’ve been told to stay away. They end up sitting in the Colored balcony with Reverend Sykes. Multiple people are called to testify in the case, including the Sheriff, Bob Ewell, Mayella, and Tom Robinson. Atticus works to establish that it was not Tom, but Bob who beat up Mayella—and it soon becomes clear that Tom is innocent of the charges.
Scout, Jem, and Dill are engrossed in the trial and don’t understand when the jury finds Tom guilty and sends him to prison. Later that fall, the sheriff reports that Tom tried to escape but was shot to death by the prison guards. He also advises Atticus take precautions against retribution by Bob Ewell who was humiliated by Atticus in court.
Halloween comes and the school children in town put on a pageant about Maycomb. Scout is dressed like a ham but sleeps through her part. Embarrassed, Jem tries to help her get home once the crowds have left. On the way, they are attacked by Bob Ewell. Someone rescues Jem, Scout gets away, and Bob “[falls] on his own knife” during the struggle and is killed, or so Sheriff Tate tells Atticus. Jem’s arm is broken, but, in reality, his life was saved by none other than Boo Radley.
The adult Jean Louise sums up the lessons learned that summer and fall, and ends the play reiterating Atticus’s advice that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”