Schenectady

Richard Thomas talks about stage adaptation of the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ opening Tuesday at Proctors

A courtroom scene from the touring production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" features, from left,  Arianna Gayle Stucki (Mayella Ewell), Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), Stephen Elrod (Bailiff), Richard Poe (Judge Taylor), Greg Wood (Mr. Roscoe) and Joey Collins (Bob Ewell). (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

A courtroom scene from the touring production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" features, from left,  Arianna Gayle Stucki (Mayella Ewell), Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), Stephen Elrod (Bailiff), Richard Poe (Judge Taylor), Greg Wood (Mr. Roscoe) and Joey Collins (Bob Ewell). (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

The idea of playing Atticus Finch might sound a bit daunting to some actors, but not Richard Thomas.

“I didn’t have to think about it at all, so when I got the offer I was ready to say yes,” said Thomas last week from Cleveland, where the national touring production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” stopped for a week before heading to Proctors in Schenectady for a six-day run beginning Tuesday night. “It’s a role that’s been played by multiple actors, and you can’t approach any role thinking it’s iconic. That’s undoable and that’s for the audience. As an actor you’re just playing a man. As an actor you have to forget about the guy in the movie.”

Atticus Finch is the fatherly southern lawyer played in the Oscar-winning movie of 1962 by celebrated film star Gregory Peck. In 2018, Aaron Sorkin wrote his own version of the story for the New York theater and it was a huge hit with Jeff Daniels in the primary role.

“This is an adaptation of the book, not the movie,” said Thomas, who became a familiar face to many Americans nearly 50 years ago when when he starred in the CBS family drama, “The Waltons,” playing John Boy, the oldest of seven children. “I can’t be Greg Peck and he can’t be me. He was a wonderful movie star from that time and place, and it is an indelible performance. But what Aaron Sorkin has done with his incredible adaptation is given Atticus what I think is a richer personal journey. He’s taken him off his pedestal, and as an actor that allows me to forget about all the Atticus baggage.”

The story centers around Atticus and his two children, Jem and Scout. Their quiet serene life in 1930s Alabama is disrupted and changed forever when Atticus decides to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1960 novel, while the 1962 movie claimed five Oscars, including Best Picture and a Leading Male Actor award for Peck. Sorkin rewrote the script for the Broadway stage and his efforts resulted in nine 2018 Tony Award nominations but just one victory, coming for Celia Keenan-Bolger for her portrayal of Scout.

“One thing I love about the play is that right from the start you know you’re not watching a movie or reading a book because Aaron starts the show with the trial,” said Thomas. “He changes a few things, but still honors the original material. You know you’re in the middle of a theater experience, and you’re in that theater-making context.”

Along with the nuanced changes to Atticus’ character, Thomas said Sorkin has also added some richness to Calpurnia, the Finch’s maid, and Tom, the black man accused of rape.

“He has deepened and open up the characters of Calpurnia and Tom and made the story much more relevant to 2022,” said Thomas. “He started adapting this years ago, before 2016, and it’s even more appropriate because of what this country has gone through since then. It remains the story of who we are as a nation.”

Sorkin also decided to make a creative casting move. The three childen — Jem is the oldest at 12 — are all played by older, but still young, actors.

“The source material is about remembering childhood, and I think it was a genius idea to have young adults play the children,” said Thomas. “They play the child in the middle of the story and also as a person remembering back to their childhood. The story is told from the standpoint of a child.”

Justin Mark plays Jem, Melanie Moore is Scout and Steven Lee Johnson is Dill Harris. Jacqueline Williams is Calpurnia, Yaegel T. Welch is Tom Robinson and Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie 60 years ago, will be performing in the role of Mrs. Dubose.

“The company is just so good,” said Thomas. “It’s a huge ensemble cast, so we have a very deep bench. Everyone is great. Melanie Moore is astonishing as Scout, and Calpurnia and Tom are just great. Everyone works so well together.”

Thomas’s gig as Atticus began in March and will continue through July of 2023. Before that he was busy making a Netflix movie with Sandra Bullock,” The Unforgivable,” that came out in 2021, and earlier this year he was also in nine episodes of the popular Netfix series, “Ozark,” with Jason Bateman and Laura Linney.

“I did ‘The Unforgivable’ with Sandra Bullock and the last season of ‘Ozark’ and I enjoyed doing both of them very much,” said Thomas. “I loved the part I played in ‘Ozark,’ and it really is a great show. And I like keeping busy. I never take a break.”

The son of ballet dancers, Thomas grew up in Manhattan and did his first TV series, a soap opera, when he was 7 years old.

“When I was six, there was never any doubt about what I wanted to do, and I really don’t know how it happened,” said Thomas. “I was born in a trunk because my parents were dancers and I was always at the theater, backstage all the time. Theater was in the air that I breathe, so it was always the natural thing for me to do. Some people were raised in that environment and didn’t really enjoy it. I loved it and could never imagine doing anything else.”

Remembering ‘The Waltons’

A graduate of McBurney High School in Manhattan, Thomas was finishing up his third year at Columbia University when Hollywood called. A new series about a family growing up in rural Virginia during the Great Depression needed an actor around 18 years of age, and the producers of “The Waltons” thought Thomas was perfect for the role. They were right, and Thomas stayed with the series for six seasons (1972-1978) and won two Emmys for Best Lead Actor. But when he stumbles across the show in reruns 50 years later, he doesn’t usually stick with it.

“I loved that show, I loved being in it and what it did for me, but I really don’t like looking at myself at that age,” he said. “I never really liked looking at myself much anyway, but I loved the people and I have great memories.”

Thomas, who turned 72 Monday, said he is not growing tired of performing or life on the road. He has played the lead role in a long-running tour of “12 Angry Men,” and in 2018 was in the national tour of “Humans,” which stopped at Proctors.

“Doing ‘12 Angry Men’ was a fantastic experience, and I just love touring and all of its challenges,” said Thomas. “It is nice to be living in Manhattan and walk to the theater when you can, but I love touring because you have a number of different opening nights and that keeps the show fresh. The show never gets stale when you tour, and I’m looking forward to coming to Schenectady and Proctors again. I had a great time there doing ‘The Humans.’ ”

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Tuesday (June 14) through Sunday (June 19); performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $100.50-$20
MORE INFO: Call (518) 346-6204 or visit www.proctors.org

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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