June 9, 2023


Just Do Travel

National tour of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ comes to Pittsburgh | Local

In the mid-1970s, Leonard Nimoy published the memoir, “I Am Not Spock,” which some “Star Trek” die-hards took to be a disavowal of the character and television series that brought him into millions of living rooms and made him a household name.

Richard Thomas is adamant that if he ever writes an autobiography, it will not be called “I Am Not John-Boy,” the character he played for so many years on “The Waltons.”

“Oh god, no.” Thomas said. “I love that show. I’m so proud of that show. It did so much for me. It was so good. I know there are people who have done series who want to distance themselves from it or have mixed feelings about it. (The cast) loved doing it, we’re still like a family all of us. We still stay in touch.”

More than 40 years after he left the CBS-TV series that chronicled the lives and struggles of a Depression-era family in a rural corner of Virginia, the 70-year-old Thomas remains most closely associated with the part he played as the Walton clan’s earnest, literary older brother. But the decades since have been busy for him. He has mixed television and film jobs with a steady diet of work on the stage, performing in everything from Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” to David Mamet’s “Race.”

And for the next two years, Thomas is going to be treading the boards on a wide-ranging American tour of the Broadway hit “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The 2018 adaptation penned by “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin is set to travel across the country well into 2023, with Thomas in the role of Atticus Finch, the principled attorney who defends a Black man accused of rape. It will be at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center starting Tuesday, with eight performances through Sunday, April 24.

“It’s about two seasons of touring together,” Thomas said on the phone last week from Boston, the second stop on the tour. “I like the road a lot. If ever there was a show you wanted to take around the country, to experience as a performer, this is really perfect.”

Though it sounds arduous, Thomas said he likes touring, pointing to traveling troupes of actors back in Shakespeare’s day or before who would roam from town-to-town plying their craft. Actors do have to battle fatigue, especially on those weekends when they are doing up to five performances, but Thomas said, “There’s so much depth to what (Sorkin) has written, and the language and the action is so much fun to play, I think this is going to be easier than a lot of them to keep fresh and vibrant.”

The novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee has long been beloved by readers across all ages, but most people first encounter it in middle school, when it is an assigned text. That’s when Thomas first read it, and he read through it again when he signed on for the tour. His reaction? “I was amazed at how much richer it was the second time through.”

It was the same for fellow cast member Jacqueline Williams, who plays the housekeeper Calpurnia in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Williams also is a fan of the 1962 film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which she said she has seen “easily eight to 10 times.” She explained over the phone that “in the film, Calpurnia isn’t as much of a presence, as much of a force. In this play (Sorkin) has really fleshed her out. He’s really brought forth the relationship Calpurnia has with Atticus, as well as the family, which is really beautiful and extremely moving.”

The movie version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” received eight Academy Award nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Mary Badham, the actress who was then 10 and played Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch. She quit acting a couple of years later, and has worked in the decades since as an art restorer and college testing coordinator. However, Badham has taken on some acting work in recent years, and will be playing the morphine addict Mrs. Dubose on the “To Kill a Mockingbird” tour.

“What a coup that was to get her,” Thomas said. “It’s like she handed the torch to us. We’re so lucky to have her.”

When the tour pulls into Pittsburgh, Thomas will be in familiar territory. He was in town last year and in 2018 to play Ebenezer Scrooge in the Pittsburgh CLO production of “A Musical Christmas Carol,” and has visited before in a touring production of “Twelve Angry Men” and when the movie “Wonder Boys” was filmed in the region. He noted that, yes, Ebenezer Scrooge is a world removed from Atticus Finch.

“It’s really different, and I have to tell you, I had so much fun,” Thomas said. “I had so much fun playing Scrooge the two times I did it in Pittsburgh. I love that company, I love that adaptation so much, I just had a wonderful time with it.”

For additional information about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and it’s Pittsburgh run, go online to trustarts.org.