Richard Thomas isn’t daunted about playing Atticus Finch, even after Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning and Jeff Daniels’ Tony-nominated performances of the iconic role in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Thomas stars in the national tour, which opens Tuesday at the Ohio Theatre.
“I’m not following in anyone’s footsteps. That’s not possible,” said Thomas, a prolific actor still best remembered as John-Boy on “The Waltons.”
“You can’t play an icon. You have to play a person."
What makes this play new and different?
Aaron Sorkin’s drama is based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning 1960 novel (not the 1962 film) about a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a Black man accused of rape during the Jim Crow era of enforced segregation.“This is not the novel or movie, but an adaptation by a wonderful writer who has earned the right to tell any story he writes in his own way,” Thomas said.
While Lee portrayed Atticus as an “idealized father figure,” Sorkin takes the kind character “down off the pedestal” while giving him a dry, “country sense of humor,” Thomas said.
“He’s forced to interrogate his idealism, his sense of community and all his assumptions. Atticus isn’t perfect. He tries to do the right thing, but doesn’t get it quite right ... That makes him more approachable,” Thomas said.
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How did the Broadway show fare?
Contemplating the “suicide mission” of reinterpreting “this country’s most enduring story about racial injustice,” Sorkin told the San Francisco Chronicle he feared he would “ruin everyone’s childhood.”
Yet, as a “playwright at heart,” Sorkin said he couldn’t reject the “extremely enticing” opportunity to adapt Lee’s novel onstage.
His decision paid off.
The 2019 New York production, nominated for nine Tony awards, broke records as the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history.
Critic Chris Jones, in his Chicago Tribune review, praised Sorkin’s “genuinely radical and thoroughly gripping” adaptation, which adds “agency” to key Black characters.
Sorkin’s play, Jones wrote, “has the capacity to change how America sees this story for good.”
What does Thomas think of Sorkin?
Best known as Emmy-winning writer-creator of TV’s “The West Wing” (1999-2006), Sorkin is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“The Social Network”) and Broadway playwright (“A Few Good Men”; the current “Camelot” revival).Sorkin also wrote screenplays for “The American President,” “Being the Ricardos,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Moneyball,” “Steve Jobs” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
“People think of Sorkin as a heady writer, but underneath is a watershed of emotion,” Thomas said.
“The real joy is his language. Aaron writes fantastic dialogue. Without changing the time, place, flavor or intentions of Lee’s novel, he brings a modern lens through which we view this story."
How does a Black actor view his role?
Yaegel T. Welch plays Tom Robinson, a young Black man accused of raping a white woman in 1934 in a segregated Alabama town.
“A family man, Tom is earnest, dignified, kind-hearted, well-meaning ... and falsely accused, an innocent man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Welch said.
On Broadway, Welch covered the role, playing it 30 to 40 times before the pandemic closed shows. When Broadway reopened in October 2021, Welch began playing Robinson full-time.
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“I’ve done many well-known plays, but ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is certainly one of the most beloved stories I’ve been part of,” Welch said.
“The character and circumstances are so rich, and the story is so true, that I can simply play the truth."
How does the play address racism?
Welch said he identifies with Robinson.
“Being a Black man in America, I can take all my experiences, and what I’ve witnessed of real-life stories of Black people being falsely accused, to understand what it would be like,” Welch said.
“These events are still happening today. That informs the immediacy and terror of the play."
While Lee focused on the courtroom drama in two later chapters, the play is centered around the trial.
“Sorkin weaves the lives of the family, back and forth through time, around the trial and shows how it reflects Jim Crow. ... You get a sense of the community from what’s happening in the court,” Welch said.
Do the Black characters achieve agency?
Unlike Lee’s novel, which makes Finch the white savior, Sorkin’s play empowers Robinson to choose whether to go on trial and defend himself.
“He’s part of the decision-making and decides to take the risk,” Welch said.
The actor praised Sorkin for enhancing Robinson’s voice.
“In 1934, being accused of raping a white woman is the ultimate crime, automatic death for a Black man. Tom feels, ‘If I’m going to die, I might as well tell the truth.' ... That might help the cause of civil rights,” Welch said.
Sorkin also empowers Calpurnia, Finch’s housekeeper.
“Part of Finch’s family and not just an employee, Calpurnia is the bearer of wisdom and foresight,” Welch said.“In the book and movie, you don’t hear a lot from the Black characters, the Black community and how they’re feeling. Sorkin gives more agency to the central people of color,” he said.
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Does 'Mockingbird' still resonate today?
Both actors agreed that Sorkin’s play – now narrated, partly in memory, by Finch’s daughter Scout, her brother and their friend Dill – makes Lee’s coming-of-age classic timely and more compelling.
“People who love the novel won’t be disappointed ... by the perennial story of growing up, of learning what the world is really like,” Thomas said.
“Like any good material, it’s going to be interrogated. That’s why classic plays live so long, because they can be questioned in new generations."
Thomas thinks he knows why “Mockingbird” retains its classic reputation.
“It’s our story ... the American story of our aspirations, how we fall short of them and what we do about that,” Thomas said.
At a glance
PNC Broadway in Columbus and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts will present “To Kill a Mockingbird” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Tickets start at $40. (cbusarts.com)
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' play coming to Ohio Theatre June 6-11