Actor Richard Thomas first read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in middle school – a story shared by generations of American schoolchildren since the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was published. experience. Now playing Atticus Finch in a nationally touring stage production, Thomas found the classic literature he loved as a student to be “just as rich, maybe even richer” when revisited as an adult.
Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bartlett Sher, the current adaptation opened in New York in 2018 and became the highest-grossing American drama in Broadway history. The ambitious national tour kicks off in March 2022 and runs through the summer of 2023, traveling to more than 40 cities across the continental United States, opening in Chicago later this week.
Thomas, a prolific actor on stage and screen who won an Emmy for his role as John Boy on the TV series “The Waltons”, was delighted to have the opportunity to film a timely “To Kill a Mockingbird” story on the road . During the call from Cleveland, he offered insights into the novel’s transformation into a theatrical work, starting with a portrayal of Atticus — a small-town lawyer and father from Alabama who wrote for black Tom Robinson ( Tom Robinson) defended against false accusations of rape in the 1930s.
“Aaron (Sorkin) wrote beautiful characters, beautiful dialogue, and in the spirit of Harper Lee, he expanded on some of the source material that I thought was very valuable,” he noted. “He pulled Atticus off his pedestal a little — quite a lot, actually — and gave him… a more subtle journey as a human being. He’s not far off in the play, just Like the novel traces the loss of children’s innocence, the show traces Atticus’ — so he learns a lot about himself and the society he lives in. His children.”
“I think he also deepens and broadens the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, two of the most important African-American characters in the book,” Thomas continues. “Both roles were played perfectly by the actors in the production (Jacqueline Williams and Yeager T. Welch), but Aaron made us really care about people. He was in Atticus and The theater center between Caponia creates a relationship that is not only more incisive in theater, but also in dialogue with the world we live in.”
The world has been in turmoil since “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit Broadway in 2018, especially as the racial justice movement has gained momentum over the past two years. “Watching this drama now, you might say, ‘Boy, this is what he wrote after 2020.’ But no, (Sorkin) really expected so much,” he noted. “He’s thinking deeply about the source material and how it can move toward the way we now think about racial justice in this country.”
Thomas also talked about working with Sher. “Bart is a very down-to-earth director,” Thomas said. “He wants people to be entertained, he wants people to be challenged. He wants to ask more questions than he answers, which I think is absolutely admirable. He doesn’t want to tie everything into a neat bow. Provocation when necessary, but also comfort when possible.”
Another personal highlight was working with the actors who played Atticus’ two children and his “virtually adopted” friend – Melanie Moore (Scout Finch), Justin Mark (Jem Finch) and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris). “As a parent, I have deep feelings for them, and for me, the parenting part of the show is one of my favorite things. …I can relate to it emotionally, they Just very talented young people,” Thomas said. “We are happy together and I feel like they are my children.”
“Sometimes the racial justice and social justice issues on the show overshadow the fact that it’s about childhood, it’s about remembering childhood…it’s about being a parent,” he observed. “The relationship between Atticus and the children, and how he deals with them, is as important as Tom Robinson’s story. They are vital to each other.”
Still in the early stages of an extensive tour, Thomas found it “exciting” to bring the production to a range of cities. “The road is a very charming and wonderful place if you’re in a good show,” he said. Noting that musicals are touring more frequently than plays these days, he added: “My agenda – aside from working with a great company to make a good show for these incredible audiences across the country – is right The drama on the road carries the blow.”
“For me, the most important thing a theater should do is give people an emotional experience and entertain them—either it’s funny, or it makes them laugh, or it makes them cry, or it makes them think about things,” Thomas said. “But beyond that, in terms of the content of the work and the content of the script — what’s a better national script than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ right now?”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” Plays May 17-29 at the Nederlander Theater at 24 W. Randolph St.; tickets $35-$114 Broadwayinchicago.com