“If you wanted to be really, really strict about genre, it’s clearly a comedy,” says Richard Thomas of Stephen Karam’s 2016 Tony-winning play, The Humans. “But that’s too thin a description. Because it’s heartbreaking, as well. It’s very touching. It has a lot of life stuff. I mean, it’s a picture of being human, really.”
Thomas stars alongside Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan and Lauren Klein in the 97-minute, intermissionless play, making a stop at the Kennedy Center through the end of this month. The action takes place at a family Thanksgiving dinner that becomes increasingly combative, as the kin grapple with issues ranging from aging and illness to religion and financial hardship.
“The ensemble writing is extraordinarily naturalistic and beautiful,” says the 66-year-old Thomas, who entered the American cultural pantheon when he starred as John-Boy on the 1970s TV classic, The Waltons. “[Our delivery] should look completely natural and effortless. In fact, the text is highly complicated, specific, very precise, and technically very demanding. It’s chamber music for actors at a very high level in terms of overlaps and interjections and pauses. Nothing is left to chance, even though it looks like it.”
This is not Thomas’ first trip to the Kennedy Center — or to D.C., for that matter. In 1985, he was gripping in visionary director Peter Sellars’ astonishing, avant garde take on The Count of Monte Cristo. A portion of that production’s final act was played, famously, in total darkness. “It was very effective,” recalls Thomas of the stunt dreamed up by Sellars. Eight years later, Thomas turned up at The Shakespeare Theatre as the lead in Michael Kahn’s memorable staging of Richard II.
Still, he’ll always be John-Boy Walton to some, and the actor harbors no ill-will for being so strongly associated with the character 40 years later. “It’s a good thing, because it was a huge success. It was something I was proud to do, and not some show that I’m embarrassed about. I mean, it wasn’t My Mother, the Car,” he laughs. “It’s only a problem if it keeps you from getting other work. If you can’t move forward and do other work that you find personally satisfying, and obviously for your livelihood, then it’s proven to be a problem. This was never the case for me, so I don’t have any unhappy or bitter feelings about it.”
Thomas is also well-known for starring, along with John Ritter, Dennis Christopher, and Annette O’Toole, in the original 1990 mini-series of Stephen King’s It. Though he has not seen the remake, he’s gently philosophical about its existence. “You have to have one for every generation,” he says. “There’s no ownership in any of this stuff.” It doesn’t take much pressing to get Thomas to weigh in about the original’s dreadful ending, with its cheesy climactic battle between “The Losers” and a giant, stop-motion, spider-like creature. “You finally see this thing, and you think, ‘What the fuck?’ It’s like a bad order of crab rangoon.”
The Humans runs to Jan. 28 in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $49 to $139. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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