Richard Thomas is back on Broadway in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The New York-born actor, who for many will always be associated with The Waltons, started his career as a child actor, making his first Broadway appearance at age seven in 1958. Since then, with detours for movies and especially television, he’s worked steadily in the theater, playing a slew of classical roles in regional theater, and working on contemporary fare by writers such as Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, Edward Albee, and David Mamet.
In Ibsen’s 1882 classic, a community’s highly anticipated source of revenue, a new public baths for their town, is in jeopardy when the town’s medical officer, Thomas Stockman, discovers the water may be contaminated. Stockman’s determination to stop the project sets him in collision with his fellow townspeople as well as his brother, Peter (Thomas), the mayor of the town. I spoke with the 61-year-old actor shortly before performances started at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.
How did you get involved with this production of An Enemy of the People? You’ve played Ibsen before, haven’t you?
My very first Ibsen was the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of A Doll’s House on television in 1959. I played one of the children. It was with Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, and Jason Robards. Cool, right? Then I did Peer Gynt at Hartford Stage, and now this. When [director] Doug Hughes called me and asked if I would play Peter, the mayor, for a reading at Manhattan Theatre Club, I was delighted and also surprised they asked me for this role. It was just a one-off as far as I was concerned. I had always wanted to work with Boyd [Gaines, who plays Thomas Stockman] and when we got into the room and read it we just had a great time. This new version just jumped off the page and Boyd and I had such a good chemistry. They called a month or so later and said they wanted to do it and would I play it? I said I would if Boyd was going to do it as well.
You mentioned a new version of the text. What’s different about this translation?
It’s by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. She’s really streamlined the text. It’s fleet and colloquial and very immediate and it doesn’t have any of the starchiness that sometimes you get in versions of Ibsen and Chekhov. You get a sense of the period, but it’s very immediate. Also, Ibsen described the play as a drama and a comedy and I think Rebecca’s version is very funny in a lot of areas. The term Doug used in rehearsal was to “create the sense of the abundance of life,” which is at the heart of comedy.
Did you feel that casting you as the adversary is a somewhat unusual choice?
I think one of the reasons why they wanted me in this part is because they’re trying to get away from this white-hat/black-hat feeling about these two brothers. I think Doug wants very much to mix it up a little bit. And clearly Boyd carries the play as Stockman, but I think they wanted in Peter a real fraternal feeling. They wanted two guys who could make their points with equal persuasion and force. It’s pretty clear what these guys stand for and who you are going to be rooting for, but within the context of that there’s a lot of ambiguity in the play. So we’ve tried to create that feeling which will throw the complex issues of the play into relief. For instance, how you actually go about the business of correcting the situation. We make these decisions in our own life every single day—these little moral decisions that we make all the time. Boyd is fantastic. I think he’s perfect to play this role. For me, it’s nice to play the adversary, which I always enjoy. It’s good for me.
Playing the not-so-nice guy, particularly the alleged perpetrator in David Mamet’s Race, that seems to happening more for you recently. Is this something you have actively pursued?
I don’t make those kind of choices. I just don’t think that way. Doug said, “I think you should do this part, you will really give the play a different flavor.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll do the reading.” You know, Race was right down the street [at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre]. I also played a kidnapper in 1965 across the street at the Brooks Atkinson in The Playroom, and a spy in the same theater in Democracy, and then the rapist in Race. Well, I guess my record is not so good on 47th Street! The part in Race was such an enigmatic role. A lot of people at the end of the play thought he was absolutely innocent and had turned himself in because of how humiliated he felt about what he learned about his own racial profile. But I know he did it.
Throughout your stage career, you’ve starred in Hamlet, Richard II, Richard III at Hartford, and recently Timon of Athens at the Public Theater. Is it the language that attracts you to the classics?
I don’t have a mission, but I do like working with directors who understand the primacy of the text. I have always felt that this feeling of emotionalism in American acting—that’s already present in what we do. One needs to then focus on bringing that into the container of the language, the container of the play. The great stuff in those plays, in Shakespeare, lies in the tension between the huge size of the emotion and the containment of the verse, and the architecture of the speech, or of the scene. So by honoring that structure, the emotional stuff becomes very vivid and strong, and it also helps the actor to feel the pressure.
Whether it’s Mamet or Shakespeare, the voice of each of these playwrights is unmistakable. Lanford [Wilson] had it, Terrence McNally has it. Edward [Albee] for sure. Edward’s voice was in my ear as a kid in New York in the 1960s. It was so strong. It’s rich to be able to engage in a close reading of these particular writers. It’s like, if you’re an instrumentalist, playing the repertoire. With Ibsen, obviously, you’re working in translation and you’re dealing with the voice of the playwright filtered through another voice. So one feels that one wants to discover the intention of the playwright to the best of your ability. A lot of actors mark their scripts with motivations and actions. My scripts tend to look like musical scores. I try to look for pauses and cadences and stops and dynamics in the writing.
Six years ago you went on a two-year national tour of 12 Angry Men. Isn’t that somewhat usual for someone at your stage in your career?
I had the best time. I had always read about Broadway actors going on the road with shows. But I had never done it, apart from some small straw-hat tours as a kid. It was a good part for me, juror number eight, and I loved the play so I thought I’ll give it a try. Aside from the time away from the family, which was taxing, I loved every minute of it. And it was such a huge success. Also for me to go on the road, it’s kind of nice because there are always people out there who watch the TV. It’s nice to able go out and play for people who knew me but had never seen me on stage. I would do it again.
Would you say that in their minds they are still seeing John Boy from The Waltons?
Of course. Oh, absolutely.
Does that bother you at all?
No. I mean, what are you going to do about it? Ultimately it’s about making a connection with your audience. And if some bond has been forged, that’s a lot. Everybody has a feeling about every actor for something they’ve seen them in; that’s what they identify them with. Nothing is quite as powerful as a television series to create that sense of identification. But, you know, there was a time when I was younger and I was trying to do all kinds of different things and I’d think why can’t they just, well, because they’re the audience. The audience can do whatever they want. They don’t have to conform to your schedule about how they should feel about you as an actor. You have to just do what you think is right and if you’re one of the actors who’s lucky enough to have people forge a bond with you, for whatever part, just get out of the way and let it happen.