Emmy Award-winning actor Richard Thomas knows a little about creating credible fictional families and crafting timeless drama.
He made his Broadway debut at age 7, playing Franklin Roosevelt's son in Dore Schary's "Sunrise at Campobello." He won a 1973 Emmy Award playing eldest son John-Boy on the television series "The Waltons." And last year, he earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance as a browbeaten husband in a revival of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes."
Currently, Thomas stars as patriarch Erik Blake in the national tour of "The Humans," Stephen Karam's 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony-winning family drama. The play, which premiered at Chicago's American Theater Company in 2014, begins a two-week run Tuesday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.
"We really became a family in Seattle," said Thomas referring to the cast and the city where the tour commenced last November.
While the kinship between the actors and their ability to conjure family relationships are important, what really propels this drama, according to Thomas, is the writing.
Karam has "created -- through very precise, specific and rigorous writing -- the illusion of spontaneity and group talk," said Thomas, who's "thrilled to bring the play to one of the great theater cities in the world."
"The Humans" unfolds during a family Thanksgiving dinner that 20-something Brigid Blake (Tony-winner Daisy Eagan) and her boyfriend Rich are hosting at their New York City apartment. Joining the couple are Brigid's dad Erik (Thomas), mom Deirdre, Erik's mother Momo and Brigid's sister Aimee.
Relationships, work, health concerns and financial anxieties are among the issues that surface in the play, which Thomas describes as very much of the moment. But timeliness alone isn't what makes "The Humans" so compelling.
"The specific issues of economic hardship and generational differences ... all of those make the play specific to our time and give it a particular relevance," said the actor, whose career spans 60 years. "Underlying that is the existential aspect of the play, of humans struggling with how to put one foot in front of the other ... That is a timeless question."
And that gives the play resonance, according to Thomas. Eagan agrees.
The views expressed by the different generations reflect the country's mood, she said.
"There are factions desperately trying to move forward and others that are not," she said. "This play looks at that on a micro scale, within the dynamic of one family."
Unlike Thomas, who saw "The Humans" on Broadway and loved it, Eagan wasn't familiar with the play aside from its laudatory reviews. It landed on her radar after the tour was announced last year and a friend suggested she'd be right for a role.
"I love Brigid," said Eagan. "She's so quintessentially 26. She's such a millennial in the sense that she's sure she knows more than anybody else. And she certainly knows more than her parents do."
Like Thomas, Eagan believes Karam is a gifted writer.
"The way he writes is so beautiful and so fascinating to listen to," she said.
Thomas says having access to the playwright can make the actor's job easier.
"Dead playwrights are wonderful because they're not sitting in the room with you," joked Thomas, who has worked with David Mamet and with Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson when they were alive.
"Living playwrights are in the room, which can be nerve-wracking," he said, "but the beautiful thing is you have the opportunity to ask questions ... and get a feeling for their intention."
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Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; from Jan. 30 through Feb. 11