The most human of mankind’s discoveries and inventions is without question the construction of tribes and societies around the core of the family. The family is, for humans, its most human and most often or not humane mechanism for understanding identity, the idea of belonging, the expression of love.
Family is at the core of understanding life at all: Christianity’s son of God is seen in his short life on earth at his most ordinary, accessible and human as a member of a family.
In turn, deities aside, the human family appears in the art of humans as a subject everywhere — in painting, sculpture, in literature, poetry and plays.
The roils, the glories, the intimacies and interrelations in families play out especially well in the theater — and its performance adjuncts on the screen in television and movies — from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to O’Neill to television sitcoms.
You could probably guess that not for nothing is the Tony Award winning play about a contemporary working and middle-class family boldly called “The Humans.”
In the midst of the second leg of its national tour, Stephen Karam’s play is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 29. It is nothing if not a play about family, a specific family struggling to deal with our turbulent and often chaotic political and cultural times. Striking a nerve on Broadway, it snatched up the 2016 Tony Award as well as the Drama Desk and Drama League Awards for Best Play.
It stars Richard Thomas as the head of the Blake clan, who live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the states where middle-class angst helped push the current resident of the White House into office. Blake has brought his family to New York and his daughter’s ramshackle apartment, shared with her boyfriend. The six-member clan bumps against the issues of the times — plus things that go bump in the night — over the noise of arguments, laughter, love and strong, beating hearts.
“Well, the whole thing was a little dizzying. It’s intense,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “It plays like a chamber piece, a kind of comedy, with no intermission in an hour and a half. The setting is highly specific — it’s New York, after all — but the people are very universal, accessible. They’re full of acts of recognition that everyone can respond to.”
Family, as a realty and as a grand but popular fiction, is a very familiar topic to Thomas. He and his first wife, Alma Gonzales, had a son and triplet daughters. In 1994, after a divorce, he married Georgiana Bischoff, who had two daughters. Thomas and Bischoff also have a son.
That’s a large extended family, but the biggest such family in the life of Richard Thomas is “The Waltons,” the hugely popular television series about a large working-class family from the 1930s in which he played — with curiosity, warmth, compassion — John “John-Boy” Walton Jr. Old fashioned, moving, it touched a large swath of American hearts during the turbulent American 1970s, when the times they-were-a-changing almost as much as they are doing now.
The danger with actors always exists that with such a long and familiar run, the actor will become typecast, will become the part for their lifetime. That’s not the case with Thomas, who embraces “The Waltons” to this day with great love and gratitude.
“You have no idea,” said Thomas, one of the most versatile actors on stage, film and television. “It is nothing if not enduring. You’re reminded of it constantly and people recognize you, sure, and I think that’s a pretty great thing. I was at an airport recently, getting my bags, when a man working the circle came up to me and said, ‘You’re John-Boy, aren’t you?’ and I said, yes, and he shook my hand, and he told me, ‘I’m from Tópaga [Colombia], and in our village we had only one television and every week the whole village gathered to watch “The Waltons.”’”
Thomas is a familiar face in Washington, where he has turned in memorable performances over the years. We talked a little about “Citizen Thomas Paine” and Peter Sellars, the director of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and a Samuel Beckett play in which Thomas appeared.
“I guess I considered myself a ’60s kind of person, change and all that,” he said. “I loved working with Sellars. He is one of the most unique directors and artists in American theater.”
We had talked about “Paine” over lunch at the Guards on M Street in Georgetown. The Guards was a suit and vest kind of place, but here was Thomas, backpack, blue jeans and checkered shirt, still in the spirit of the revolutionary rouser.
Most recently, we saw him again (and talked with him again) as he starred as President Jimmy Carter in playwright Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David,” about the hard struggle to reach agreement on peace between Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
“I still remember the words that night,” Thomas said. “We have peace.”
The opening, in fact was a remarkable, hair-raising night that went beyond the boundaries of theater and became a public event. President Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter were there in the audience, as was the widow of Sadat.
Thomas allowed that the presence of the president and the real people was “a little extra pressure.” Ron Rifkin played Begin, Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy played Sadat and Tony-Award nominated actress Hallie Foote played the first lady.
We also saw Thomas in a wrenching, poetic star turn as Richard II at the Shakespeare Theater Company.
He’s been busy since “Camp David,” receiving a Tony nomination for “The Little Foxes.” He was also seen in Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” as Iago in “Othello” at the Old Globe and was part of the highly acclaimed CBS Television series “The Americans.”
“The Humans” often plays like a comedy, and you know what we know about that: Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard.
Still, in the sense that nobody dies, “The Humans” is a dramedy. “It’s life,” Thomas said. “Things happen. People get sick, have to pay their bills. Life, for some of them, has not turned out as well as they imagined, and these themes get aired in the Blake household. They get aired in most households.”
Thomas, now 66 and still sounding boyish, doesn’t complain about advancing age. “My children are of an age where I can actually talk to them about what’s going on the world. That’s a revelation and a great experience.
“The Humans” is directed by Joe Mantello and, in addition to Thomas, features Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan, Lauren Klein, Therese Plaehn and Luis Vega.