Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Take 5 With Richard Thomas

It’s been 14 years since Richard Thomas appeared live in South Florida, as Juror No. 8, the compassionate moral center of “Twelve Angry Men.” Now, he’s back for another Broadway tour, on the other side of the courtroom. He plays Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at Broward Center.

The beating heart of Sorkin’s script is Atticus’ defense of a Black man falsely accused of rape in a racist Alabama town. But wherein Lee’s novel, Atticus’ daughter, Scout, is the main protagonist, in Sorkin’s version Atticus takes center stage, providing a weighty and complex part for Thomas.

Most famous as John-Boy, narrator and central figure of “The Waltons,” for which he won an Emmy Award, Thomas has appeared in nearly 125 TV and movie projects. But touring this masterpiece from Lee and Sorkin provides the latest opportunity for him to embark on his “stealth mission:” to bring more plays to regions otherwise saturated with musicals. “There are many people who come to the show who’ve never seen a play. They’ve only seen musicals,” he says. “They’ve seen “Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Waitress. … This takes nothing away from the great form that is the American musical comedy, but it’s not the only flavor.

“This doesn’t make me special. If I hated touring, I wouldn’t do it. But it has, for me, a kind of primal, ur-theatrical feeling to it, of taking your company from town to town. It’s a wonderful experience.”

Why is Atticus Finch such an important and enduring character in literature?

He’s a beautifully written character in this wonderful book by Harper Lee, and a man of great principle. I think he represents the aspirational side of America. He has a strength of character and a moral and ethical code that makes him an admirable person. … The things that make him this sort of wonderfully admirable character in the book don’t necessarily make for a particularly exciting character onstage in terms of the dynamism of drama. There’s very little conflict in Atticus’ character in the book. He’s very much a father figure who’s idealized by his kids. … It’s a little different than what we have going on here.

So how do you find that dynamism in Atticus?

You have to find it in the text. And one of the things Aaron Sorkin has done so brilliantly is he’s taken Atticus off his pedestal. People use the word ‘iconic’ when they talk about him, and of course you can’t play an icon. An icon is a frozen thing. And you can’t have a frozen thing on the stage. [Sorkin has] interrogated all of Atticus’ unassailable virtues. He’s given him a journey of the loss of innocence that’s parallel with the kids, and he’s created a man who has to undergo a real deconstruction of all of his bedrock feelings of confidence in community and human nature. This not only makes for exciting drama; as Aaron says, he’s made Atticus the protagonist of the play because he’s given him a journey and flaws.

Does the play parallel with some of the racial-justice issues we’ve been facing lately?

What’s extraordinary about Aaron’s adaptation is that it was written before 2020, before George Floyd, before this great resurgence of social justice action. In so many ways, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is our story. It contains the story of one of our original sins and its aftermath, so it mirrors our aspirations to be just, and it also mirrors the degree to which we fall short of that. That’s the negotiation that’s going on with Atticus all the time.

Some of the changes Sorkin made to the source material are fundamental. For lovers of the book who are wary of changes, what advice would you give them when approaching the play?

To recognize that this isn’t a novel; it’s a theatre experience. Keep your mind open, and take the journey that Sorkin has given us to take. There’s two ways to look at classics: You can either do a slavish copy and hang it on the wall like an icon, or you can wrestle with the material and work with it in a way that reveals new things about it.

You still maintain a boyish look. What’s your secret?

No secret at all. I’ve just got the genes that keep you looking young for a while, and then all of a sudden you look like you’re 120 one day. That’s going to happen. But right now, given the distance between the footlights and the first row of the audience, I can play Atticus Finch!

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”
WHERE: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
WHEN: March 28-April 9
COST: $35-$115
CONTACT: 954/462-0222, browardcenter.org

This article is from the March 2023 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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