LISTEN: Actor Richard Thomas talks with GPB's Kristi York Wooten about "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the story's relevance today.

Maeve Moynihan (left) listens to Richard Thomas (right) during an interview the GPB at the Fox Theatre on May 8, 2024.

Maeve Moynihan (left) listens to Richard Thomas (right) during an interview with GPB at the Fox Theatre on May 8, 2024.

Credit: Hawley Penfold / BRAVE Public Relations

Atlanta's Fox Theatre is the largest venue on the national tour of Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Its 4,700 seats pack an audience nearly three times as big as the Shubert Theatre in NYC, where the play made its original Broadway debut in 2018.

That's a lot of Southerners in one room, ready to hear dialogue based upon Harper Lee's 1960 novel about an Alabama family in the 1930s — and to be moved by the story's timeless messages about race and truth.

In the touring production, actor Richard Thomas polishes the role of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white girl. 

Southern audiences understand what it's like to grapple with our region's dark and difficult past while also making space for the humor and light in To Kill a Mockingbird's depiction of small town life.

And Tuesday night when the play opened at the Fox, Atlantans' ears perked up at mentions of an Auburn versus Georgia Tech football game nearly 100 years ago and a place called the OK Cafe, while a hush fell across the theatre during scenes involving characters dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan.

It's a challenging line for the cast to tread, but that tension is what makes this production of To Kill a Mockingbird so inspiring.

During an interview Wednesday with castmates Maeve Moynihan (Scout Finch) and Yaegel Welch (Tom Robinson), Thomas reflected on the first night performance in Atlanta and told GPB why the play offers valuable lessons on politics and society. He also explained how Atticus Finch differs from that other famous Southerner he embodied: John-Boy on the hit 1970s TV series, The Waltons.


On Atticus Finch, then and now

Richard Thomas: [Aaron Sorkin] has done several extraordinary things with the source material and for the actors who play Atticus. The greatest gift is that he's taken Atticus off the pedestal and made him a vulnerable and flawed man. But he's also given him a sense of humor, which is such a gift, especially in a story which has so much heartbreak and, you know, and it's so serious. He's done the light and shadow beautifully.

... What I always wanted [Atticus] to be is a small-town country lawyer. Not a heroic figure, not a man who is different from everybody else, but somebody who actually fits right into the community because he has to go through that journey of realizing that that he does not fit in in a lot of ways. So I wanted him to be, not a heroic man, just a guy raising his kids who's a comfortable country lawyer. Nothing fancy, nobody special. And that's given me a lot of satisfaction.


On bookending his career with Southern characters

Richard Thomas: I'm a born-and-raised New York theater brat. But my father's family were all from eastern Kentucky, and I spent every summer of my childhood and young adulthood on my grandparents’ farm with my cousins and aunts and uncles and all that. So, that's always been a big part of my life and has made it very easy for me to identify with a Southern perspective and the language. My accent [while playing Atticus Finch] is not quite Deep South — it's a little bit more mountains — but that's what I'm comfortable with. So that's what I let it be, because I want it to be authentic.

Atticus Finch is a man who is happy in his community, with the world. Things are OK. He doesn't need to travel or do anything or break away. He's made his life, and he's raising his kids. John-Boy is a young man who's got one foot at home and one foot out in the world. He wants to be an artist. He's comfortable. He loves his family, his community. But there is a yearning. He's also outside. He also stands outside as an observer. And he also has ambitions beyond his home, so that there's a tension in that character between loving where you're at and wanting another life. And that's I think, a key difference between them.


On how To Kill a Mockingbird approaches political issues

Richard Thomas: This is a story of our country ... that's why it's always relevant. It is our history and it's a mirror. It's who we are. It's who we aspire to be and how far short we fall of those aspirations and what we do about it when we miss. And so in that sense, because it is involved with a civic life, it is profoundly political. Not in terms of "right or left" or "conservative or progressive," but political in terms of where we stand as citizens within a within a society. And that is balanced by a beautiful summertime childhood story of memory and loss of innocence.

... I want people to leave the theater asking themselves where they fit into this picture. You know, where is my family history, how I grew up, what I feel? Where am I with my unacknowledged biases? How do I fit into the larger picture of this story? 

Maeve Moynihan: I think you're right about history. I think play shows us where we were, and it helps us understand where we are now. And I think it also points out how far we have to go and how little progress really has been made. So I hear what you're saying about, like, you know, [a city like Atlanta] may have figured it out, but I would argue that we haven't figured it out. And in fact, I think the play shows that…I think it is inherently political because it's our history. It's who we are as Americans.

Yaegel Welch: … There is no doubt when the N-word is being used flippantly by white people that it automatically becomes political to a large population in this country. You know, this story, because it's immediately triggering to a lot of white people, to the [role of the] sheriff in the first five minutes [of the play]. Some people come knowing [what to expect], some people don't know. And they're like, "Oh!", you know, and people sit up on the edge of their seats. And I think this book [To Kill a Mockingbird] was used as a tool to motivate civil rights leaders, to be birthed and become lawyers. They become civil rights justice warriors because of this book. I think it's definitely making a political statement told in a family coming-of-age story...You know, like [George Floyd's murder in 2020] became political because of what it inspired. And so, it's hard for me to separate this story from our country at that time. 


On Southern audiences

Richard Thomas: There is a satisfaction doing this play in the South because Southern audiences inherently understand it, not just the sound and the humor. And I think [Sorkin] has done a wonderful job of creating Southern rhythms and cadences in the language and the diction he uses. But playing in the South is wonderful because they [audiences] get it. They've been through it. It’s everybody's legacy in the South, and they love the humor because they are just Southern audiences are so ready to take the seriousness and the humor together.

The Broadway touring production To Kill a Mockingbird runs through Sunday, May 12 at Atlanta's Fox Theatre. Click here for tickets and more information.