Arts / Performing Arts

Aaron Sorkin’s Version of To Kill a Mockingbird Takes Texas by Storm and Lets Richard Thomas Shine

An Atticus Finch For Modern Times Is No White Savior

BY // 04.30.23
photography Julieta Cervantes

When Broadway shows tour Texas, we usually expect big musicals, cast with talented, up-and-coming, but seldom famous actors. This makes the flight of the play To Kill a Mockingbird across Lone Star stages, which stars Emmy-winning stage and screen star Richard Thomas, a rare bird indeed. 

The Harper Lee classic novel turned classic film starring Gregory Peck, as small town attorney Atticus Finch, has made it to the stage. It took blockbuster playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to adapt a new Mockingbird true to its deep Southern 1930s setting and roots, while showing its relevance for 21st century eyes. 

I talked to Richard Thomas during the Houston run of To Kill a Mockingbird, which concludes with two performances Sunday (a matinee at 2 pm and an evening showing at 8 pm). From there, To Kill a Mockingbird moves on to San Antonio (Tuesday, May 2nd through Sunday, May 7th at the Majestic Theatre), Austin (May 9 through May 14 at Bass Concert Hall), Dallas (May 16 through May 28 at Music Hall at Fair Park) and New Orleans (May 30 through June 1). This touring Broadway play also comes back around and hits Fort Worth (September 26 through October 1 at Bass Hall).

During my talk with Thomas about how much readers and audience find inspiration from the virtue of Atticus Finch, I mentioned that I invited an attorney friend of mine to the opening night performance. She had read the novel as a young adult and from then on thought of the character as a kind of a lawyerly ideal. 

Thomas replied that countless lawyers, law professors and law students have told him similar stories. 

“There are a few characters that seem to have a life of their own outside of the work and Atticus is one of those,” Thomas says. “People talk about Atticus as if he’s a real person, like he really existed.”

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Yet from his first moments on stage in this show, we see an Atticus as still Lee’s creation but made anew with Sorkin’s theatrical layering.

“I think one of the things that Sorkin has done is taking him off his pedestal and giving him a lot to learn,” Thomas tells PaperCity. “That allows the actors to take a different kind of emotional journey than Atticus takes in the movie or the book.

“The last thing we want is another white savior story. We need a man who is learning. His own sort of comfort level in the community is challenged.”

Those fans of Sorkin’s rhythms of dialogue and weaving of sharp humor with drama and sometimes tragedy in works like A Few Good MenThe West Wing, The Social Network and Moneyball will immediately recognize this as a Sorkin play.

“He knows how to write dialogue so well there is a natural flow to the exchanges, the debates, the discussions,” Thomas says. “It’s kind of of like Shaw. It’s easy to become fluent in it. He writes for actors.

“His Southern cadences are beautifully done. The imagery, the cadences, the way people go back and forth with each other are so Southern. It’s a real accomplishment.”

n Tom Robinson on the stand A (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) takes the stand in a powerful scene from To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Thomas acknowledges that many people know him from his roles playing characters with a foundational goodness about them, like Atticus and his Emmy-winning performance as John-Boy Walton, but he’s played many a “heavy” over the years, from Shakespeare villains to most recently in the Netflix show Ozark. He doesn’t find either hero or baddie particularly more challenging or fun to play, but does find something special in Atticus.

“I do feel an affinity with this part, not because he’s good or I’m good, but it feels like the shoe fits,” Thomas says. “Certainly the way he’s written, I feel very comfortable and I can live the part from night to night.”

The play holds true to the plot of the novel, and this version of To Kill a Mockingbird comes from Sorkin who loves a dramatic speech. So it’s no real spoiler to mention that the trial of an innocent Black man named Tom Robinson in Jim Crow Alabama is the centerpiece and a framing device of the production.

What does become a remarkable piece of stage and acting craft is that no actors play the all-white jury. Instead, the jury box remains empty. And gradually, Thomas as Atticus, begins to gesture to the audience then addresses them directly. 

“I want very much to talk to the audience as if they’re in the courtroom, which they are, and as if they are a part of making this decision, which they are on a day to day bases,” Thomas says. “So the audience becomes implicated and is addressed more directly.”

To Kill a Mockingbird On The Road

And this leads us into the power of live touring. After decades of acting accolades, Richard Thomas could certainly stick to New York stages and go home each night, but he says there’s nothing like being on the road. 

“Touring is a thing onto itself,” he says. “It’s wonderful, in many ways, going around the country, playing to different communities, traveling with the show. It feels like a very ancient way to be an actor. Traveling players is what it literally is, and it’s a very long and old tradition.

“I feel connected to a very deep past in my profession. I love that. It’s also extremely challenging. You’re away from home and family. A lot of the time you’re going one hotel to another hotel, traveling on your days off. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

To Kill a Mockingbird Cast (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
Cast members of To Kill a Mockingbird (Yaegel T. Welch, Melanie Moore, Richard Thomas and Jacqueline Williams) during a media event at Houston’s Hobby Center. (Photo by Tarra Gaines)

But if the acting heart is courageous, Thomas thinks it very worthwhile bringing plays to the people across the country.

“I have had, over the years, a little stealth mission to bring more plays on the road because it’s almost entirely musicals now,” he says, pointing to the rarity of this particular play. “I think this is the most successful non-musical that’s ever toured, so far.”

And he’s particularly happy to be back on Texas stages. He’s performed in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin before. 

“Texas audiences are great and they’re all different,” Thomas says.

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