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Richard Thomas takes on dad role in ‘The Humans’

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From left, Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan and Luis Vega star in “The Humans.” (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes)

Acting in an ensemble playing an extended family gathered for a holiday meal is familiar territory for Richard Thomas. He won an Emmy playing John-Boy over nine seasons of “The Waltons” starting in 1972.

Thomas visits San Francisco this week with a new family including Pamela Reed and Tony-winner Daisy Eagan in “The Humans,” the Tony-winning play by Stephen Karam. The Pulitzer Prize finalist centers on a working class New York family dealing with career crisis, generational class distinctions, Alzheimer’s disease, and literally trying to keep the faith.

What would the Waltons think of these folks?

“Oh, I think the Waltons would get the Blakes. Absolutely,” says Thomas, his bright, open tones unchanged over the decades. “One of the things that would be very much in common is having two parents who really live their lives out of a sense of duty and a sense of service. Service to the family. Service to the community.”

He plays Erik Blake, the patriarch, who must deal with the very different lives his daughters lead, his mother’s imminent death, and secrets he carries that will profoundly affect the family when revealed.

Touring in a play delights Thomas, though the opportunities are far less frequent than he’d prefer. “It used to be people would take their plays out before or after they’d go into New York. Plays were always on the road. Now the diet is almost entirely musicals,” he says.

He finds the material in “The Humans” particularly satisfying: “Stephen has… and this is a mark of the exquisiteness of his writing… he has touched on so many things that are happening in people’s lives across America, working and middle-class people, but he manages to touch on all these things without ever saying, ‘OK, this is what the play’s about. Are you getting this?’”

Born in Manhattan, Thomas will turn 67 during his time in San Francisco. He has spent 60 of those years as a working actor. He made his Broadway debut in “Sunrise at Campobello” with Ralph Bellamy and James Earl Jones in 1958, followed by work on New York-based soap operas like “As the World Turns.”

He never gave much thought to following in the very skilled footsteps of his parents, both dancers with New York City Ballet. “By the time I was old enough to study dance I was well on my way as a young actor. Also, I’m a verbal type. I’m a language person. So, the idea of a life’s profession on the stage without opening your mouth is way beyond my capacity to imagine.”

The Humans
Where: SHN Orpheum, 1192 Market St., S.F.
When: Opens Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 17
Tickets: $40 to $150
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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