Daily Press (Sunday)


Richard Thomas of ‘The Waltons’ stars in Broadway’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbir­d,’ which opens Tuesday

- By Colin Warren-Hicks | Staff writer

In his words, Richard Thomas said: “It’s wonderful for John-Boy to be playing Atticus Finch in Virginia.” This week, the actor returns to the state that made him famous. In his early 20s, he rose to national prominence portraying John-Boy Walton, the kindhearte­d, oldest sibling of seven children, on the 1970s TV show “The Waltons” set in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Now at 72, Thomas is starring as Atticus Finch in the national Broadway tour of Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbir­d.” The show opens Tuesday at Chrysler Hall and runs through Feb. 4.

It’ll be the actor’s first visit to Norfolk and first performanc­e on a Virginia stage.

“I’m looking forward to that,” he said during a phone interview. “I love Virginia. It is a beautiful state, and I’ve always had an affection for it, obviously.”

There was a smile in Thomas’ voice.

He likes to remind people that the eager and bright-eyed John-Boy he played in his early 20s is different from the adult lawyer he is portraying on stage.

Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbir­d,” was published in 1960 to immediate critical and popular success. The story is told through Scout Finch, a young white girl who lives in a 1930s Alabama town with her brother, Jem, and their father, attorney Atticus Finch. Atticus represents Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of rape.

Racial justice is one of the book’s themes, as Scout is awakened to how racial animus affects her family and wider community. Open-mindedness is another. Scout befriends a recluse, Boo Radley.

A 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and featuring Robert Duvall, in his firstever film appearance, as Radley, won Peck an Academy Award, and in 2003, the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Heroes & Villains”

named Atticus Finch the No. 1 movie hero of all time.

“There are certain characters in fiction and in theater who are so vivid that they seem to have a life of their own off the page,” Thomas said.

In Shakespear­e, there’s Falstaff. In American fiction, Atticus Finch stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Celie from

Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Holden Caulfield.

But Thomas jumped at the chance to land the part in the play, because of how Sorkin — whose award-winning screenplay­s include “A Few Good Men,” “Moneyball” and “The Social Network” — reimagined the character for the stage.

“Aaron Sorkin has, I think, wisely, very wisely in my opinion, especially for the actors who play Atticus, really taken him off his pedestal and made him much more, I think, approachab­le,” Thomas said.

In 1973, he won an Emmy Award for Outstandin­g Continued Performanc­e by an Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of John-Boy. Later, he starred in the 1990 TV miniseries adaption of Stephen King’s novel “It,” appeared in 48 episodes of the TV series “The Americans” and played bad guy Nathan Davis in the Netflix series “Ozark.” He’s been cast in numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway stage production­s, including “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way” and “The Little Foxes,” for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 2017.

A big role is an enticement for any actor, Thomas said, and he was particular­ly drawn to Atticus. For decades, Lee’s novel was required reading for tens of thousands of schoolchil­dren every year, and has maintained a cultural relevance. For many, the heart of its appeal is its characters like Atticus, a man who in the book gives advice such as “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

While Scout is the primary protagonis­t in the book, Atticus is at center stage in the Broadway show. Scout still is the narrator, but Atticus is presented from more points of view than just that of a doting daughter. And, Thomas said, the script explores the attorney’s loss of innocence that parallels that of his children. He doesn’t see his own choices as the automatica­lly correct ones, as a child might. Audiences get to see a different side of the character as he experience­s internal conflict when whites in the community disapprove of his defending Robinson in court.

“He comes into contact with — really and personally — Black trauma, in a way that probably the family hasn’t before, even though they kind of know everything that’s going on.”

The role of the Finches’

Black housekeepe­r, Calpurnia, is more significan­t and richer in the play than in previous tellings of the story.

The play is, Thomas said, “a ‘Mockingbir­d’ for our time.”

Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8138, colin.warren hicks@virginiame­dia.com

 ?? SEVENVENUE­S PHOTOS ?? Maeve Moynihan, left, as Scout Finch, and Richard Thomas, as Atticus Finch, in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbir­d.”
SEVENVENUE­S PHOTOS Maeve Moynihan, left, as Scout Finch, and Richard Thomas, as Atticus Finch, in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbir­d.”
 ?? ?? Thomas with Jacqueline Williams, as Calpurnia.
Thomas with Jacqueline Williams, as Calpurnia.

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