Together they are packing a punch. “Award-winning actor Richard Thomas doesn’t just act — he embodies his characters, avoiding even a hint of artifice,” wrote one critic. And from a member of the audience: “Just as the book is a masterpiece, this play is as well!! I wondered how a play could reach the depths of the novel in such a short time, but it was perfect. Everyone needs to hear this message.”
The message is timeless: racial injustice and prejudice. The plot centers around the Finch family living in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus Finch is a lawyer defending a Black man accused of raping a white woman.
The show, which opened in New York in 2018, holds the record as the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history. On Feb. 26, 2020, “To Kill a Mockingbird” became the first-ever Broadway play to perform at New York’s Madison Square Garden in front of approximately 18,000 New York City public school students. That was also the largest attendance at a single performance of a play ever in world theater.
In this production, Mary Badham, who received an Academy Award nomination as Scout in the 1962 film, will be portraying Mrs. Dubose, the Finch’s mean neighbor and a recovering morphine addict.
A chat with Richard Thomas
Thomas describes himself as a New York theater kid who was backstage from the time he was born. His parents danced with the New York City Ballet.
Thomas had no formal acting training; he learned his trade on the job. By age 6, he was performing in summer theater productions and in the 1950s began appearing on live television. He made his Broadway debut in 1958 as the youngest son of Franklin Roosevelt in “Sunrise at Campobello,” an inspirational drama which also featured James Earl Jones in his first Broadway role.
“I was a happy kid, growing up in Manhattan and working all the time,” Thomas recalls. “The world I was born into came naturally; it was the family business.” He says he has been pretending to be other people all his life.
Now at age 72, Thomas is proud to be using his finely tuned skills to portray Atticus Finch. Although the story remains true to the novel, Thomas says this stage adaptation is told theatrically through storytelling rather than in a linear way.
In the novel, the coming-of-age story is told through the eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout. In the theatrical production, Scout’s brother Jem and their friend, Dill, also contribute to the narrative.
“The kids are played by young adults who are in the story and remembering it as well,” Thomas explains.
Thomas says writer Aaron Sorkin has put his mark on the production, making it very theatrical and different from the novel or screenplay. The actor is also grateful to Sorkin for enriching the role of Atticus.
“He has made him more accessible and vulnerable,” says Thomas. “He has given him a wonderful sense of humor and given him room to grow. Atticus is a good man and honorable, but he has a lot to learn. That’s wonderful because it gives him a terrific journey and makes him more accessible to the audience as a person losing his innocence at the same time the kids are.”
He says Sorkin has also enriched the roles of Calpurnia, the Finch family’s Black housekeeper, and Tom Robinson, the Black man falsely accused of rape. “And he has introduced themes related to how we look at social justice today.”
Like many of us, Thomas remembers reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a child at school.
“I loved it and thought it was great,” he says. “But having read it again as an adult before preparing the script I realize it’s not a young adult novel. It’s an adult novel appropriate for people in junior high when young people are developing social consciousness and a sense of community. Both are appropriate times in life to read it.”
Thomas can’t think of a better story than “Mockingbird” to be telling around our country right now.
“It’s always relevant to us as Americans; it’s a clear-sighted picture of who we are as a people,” he believes. “It reflects our aspirations to be a certain kind of society — the ways in which we fall short and the ways in which we succeed.”
Thomas says this version of “Mockingbird” is a strong piece of work that’s not sanitized and hasn’t been made family-friendly. “People bring their kids. After the play, they go home and the kids ask a lot of questions.”
Thomas, who took on the iconic role in March of last year, says he wants his audiences to be entertained and also to have an experience that’s emotional, stimulating and exciting.
“Whatever they take away is their own business but I want them to have feelings about the play,” he explains. “It’s easy to look at the story and feel good about ourselves for not being racist. But this play can make you more aware of how you are living your life. It can enable you to see our system more clearly and investigate it so that we live our lives with a more realistic connection to these issues and know where we fit in.”
The actor, who advocates for taking dramas on tour, says the success of “Mockingbird” paves the way for other non-musicals.
“Dramas can be extremely challenging — they are not for everybody. People are scared of plays; they have to work a little harder, but once you get into the swing, it’s an easy experience.”
Thomas was 21 when he landed the part of John-Boy in “The Waltons,” a role that quickly made him famous. The series centered around a Depression-era family in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The story was told from the point of view of John-Boy, who aspired to become a novelist.
Thomas loved the role. “We were all very close and are still in touch with each other all the time,” he says. “It was a rich and fulfilling experience and we all felt we were doing something good.”
Although he has enjoyed working in television and film, Thomas says live theater gives actors an opportunity to work together over a long period, come to the theater at the same time and all play together.
“At the end of a movie you may meet people you have never seen and you may do scenes out of order,” he explains. " With theater, you form this bond for a period of hours; it’s a shared experience in real time. That’s very special: people in the room together making a play for the people who come to see it on that particular day. It’s satisfying to do a play from beginning to end. It’s a beautiful thing.”
HOW TO GO
What: “To Kill a Mockingbird”
When: Tuesday, Oct. 17 through Sunday, Oct. 22
Where: Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center, 1 West Second St., Dayton
Tickets: $29-$129. Visit daytonlive.org/mockingbird or purchase in-person through the Dayton Live Ticket Office Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. or by phone at 937-228-3630.
Background on Broadway
An hour before each performance you can learn about the development, history, and artistry of the show. This free event is held in the Schuster Center’s Fourth Floor Lobby. You must have a ticket to that day’s performance.