ARCHIVE: Looking for Richard, at Monmouth U

Richard Thomas toonOriginally published in the Asbury Park Press, April 21, 2006

To name-check the proverbial elephant in the living room, Richard Thomas feels “proud” and “lucky” to be associated with John-Boy Walton.

“(‘The Waltons’) had a perfume of honesty and integrity to it…so much of that was in the quality of the writing, and John-Boy was someone who was always concerned with writing and expression,” the Emmy-winning star says of the iconic TV character that he’s revisited many times, from 1970’s “The Homecoming” to the most recent Walton family reunion movie in 1997.

“I always felt as if I were playing a past part of my own self,” explains the professed “Broadway brat,” whose upbringing in the midst of Manhattan’s arts and theater circles (his parents both danced with the New York City Ballet) was augmented by summers spent on his father’s family farm in eastern Kentucky — interludes that allowed the young thespian (who made his Broadway bow at the age of seven) a “huge window into the world of Appalachia…the sound, the speech, the way of thinking.”

Since his early starring role in “Oliver Twist,” Thomas has exhibited a genuine knack with characters who use words to achieve their ends — from acclaimed Shakespearean stage turns in “Richard II” and “Hamlet,” to his recent Broadway success as East German spy Gunter Guillaume in Michael Frayn’s “Democracy.” Now 54, the actor, producer and published poet carries his own love of language and expression to the Monmouth University stage tomorrow night, with a one-man show entitled “A Play on Words.”

An intimately-scaled presentation that evolved from a series of readings that Thomas delivered to academic audiences, “A Play on Words” teams the familiar voice with some of the most powerfully magical words in all of literature; from the sonnets and soliloquies of the Bard to the great American verse of Poe and Whitman (as well as the ever-trenchant observations of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde). It’s a “periodically performed” show that the actor describes as “not a long evening, and quite loose — I have a large body of stuff that I draw from.

“I collected pieces that I enjoyed reading;” Thomas continues. “stuff that lent itself to dramatic interpretation.”

Observing that “people are no longer used to hearing just the spoken word…it makes them nervous,” Thomas has nonetheless crafted a simple and effective performance piece that disdains multi-media flash, putting its point across with what the star describes as “the richness of imagination, coupled with great writing.” To which one may rightfully add the reassuring, naturalistic style of one of America’s finest actors; a man whose easygoing dignity pervades every project — from such memorable television productions as “The Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “The Hank Williams Jr. Story” and even the 1970’s drive-in classic “Battle Beyond the Stars” (“a chance to work with Roger Corman, and a spaceship with breasts — you can’t beat it”).

Recently relocated back to his native Manhattan, Thomas maintains a hectic and eclectic schedule that has seen him working simultaneously on projects that range from the forthcoming TV movie “Wild Hearts,” to an episode of TNT’s Stephen King anthology “Nightmares and Dreamscapes,” to a national tour of “Twelve Angry Men.” In between, the busy performer plans to continue to find time for the occasional “Play on Words.”

“It’s like an intimate gathering…I even speak to the audience afterward,” he explains. “It’s time you spend with people, as opposed to just acting into a camera.”

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