In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, that you can't really understand another person "until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
Baylen Thomas is about to climb into Atticus' skin, and doing so makes him one brave fellow. He plays Finch in the Guthrie Theater's staging of "Mockingbird" that opens Friday.
In the collective American memory, that character is thoroughly embodied by Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar in 1963 for his portrayal of the single parent and noble lawyer bucking small-town racist mores in the Deep South during the Depression. How does an actor go about making such a part his own?
"We're going to have to let people down easy — Gregory Peck is not in this production," Thomas joked during a recent rehearsal break. "But a play can have moments that last longer than they do on film. Something about seeing a live actor go through events in real time can't help but be profound. That's why this is such a great opportunity for both the actors and the audience: It isn't the movie."
Nor is it the Pulitzer-winning Harper Lee novel on which the film was based, one of the most widely read and beloved works of 20th-century American fiction.
While Christopher Sergel's scrupulously faithful stage adaptation received the always-wary Lee's personal seal of approval, presenting such an iconic drama anew comes with challenges. Namely, the audience's varying desires, ranging from an exact copy of the book or film to something completely unfamiliar.
Primal pull of storytelling
Director John Miller-Stephany's approach: You can't please 'em all, so do your own thing.
"You have to let go of other people's expectations," said Miller-Stephany, who has directed 17 productions in nearly two decades with the Guthrie. "There've been 30 million copies of the book published. The film is, in fact, only a subset of the novel. Everyone's point of departure is different, so it's impossible to satisfy that.
"Instead, we've got this group of artists, and this moving, heartfelt story presented in a new way. People are going to see things they don't remember from the book or movie.
"There's part of us that loves to hear some stories over and over again. It's primal. 'A Christmas Carol' is a great example. People come year after year, even though they know Scrooge is going to become a better man."
The play won't take the place of the book or film, but rather add to them, particularly because going to the theater is not an individual, private undertaking, but one shared with the rest of the audience.
"You're not going to be surprised by watching the movie again," Miller-Stephany said. "It's frozen in time. But when you see the story with 1,100 other people, it's a community experiencing something together, and that's a real thrill."
Paul Walsh, a professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama, said that plays laced with nostalgia are tricky to pull off because "you need to find that balance between what the public wants and expects, and bringing things into 2015. But it's easier with theater to make it feel in the present. It doesn't have to turn into a ritual. It can address modern issues."
In view of the volatility of race relations today, Walsh said, the play is "terrifyingly relevant. We're in a different historical moment, so it resonates for different reasons."
'Watchman' not a factor
Sergel originally intended his play for middle-school and high-school casts, but it immediately became a draw for all ages after its 1991 American premiere at the Paper Mill in New Jersey.
The earliest version included narration, which was critically panned, but the second version, the one being used by the Guthrie, goes without the voiceover.
The decision to open the Guthrie season with "Mockingbird" had nothing to do with the news last February that a sequel to the book had been discovered, said Miller-Stephany. Rather, it was based on audience interest in adaptations of classic novels like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre."
Likewise, the controversy stirred subsequently by Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" and its revelations about Atticus' racism has not altered Miller-Stephany's interpretation of the play.
"People are so sentimental about it," he said. "There's been a good deal of criticism that the character of Atticus is a plaster saint, but the story is told in the first person by a daughter looking at her dad, and it's hard to see a parent objectively. Now people are upset that Atticus is deeply flawed in 'Go Set a Watchman.' You can't win."
Other cast members include some familiar faces, notably Ansa Akyea as the falsely accused Tom Robinson, Bruce Bohne as Bob Ewell, Michael Booth as Boo Radley, Stacia Rice as Miss Maudie and Regina Marie Williams as Calpurnia.
The trio of children central to the story, Atticus' daughter Scout, son Jem and their diminutive pal Dill (widely thought to be based on the young Truman Capote) will be played by three sets of two young actors, only some of who have prior professional acting experience. Isadora Swann and Mary Bair alternate as Scout, Noah Deets and Lorenzo Reyes as Jem, and Isaac Leer and Nate Turcotte as Dill.
Such prominent children's roles, in which they carry some scenes all by themselves, haven't been seen on a Guthrie stage since Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" in 2006.
"Having these kids commanding the stage will bring some added excitement," Miller-Stephany said.
Thomas, who has Broadway credits and is performing at the Guthrie for the first time, happens to share a few qualities with Atticus. He grew up in Alabama, so he's familiar with "the open fields, the swamps and woods, the guns and football."
He also has two children about the same age as Scout and Jem, and rehearsed for a couple of weeks with just the young actors before the rest of the cast joined them.
"I feel a personal connection with the character," he said. "What I respond to most is his relationship with his kids, the way he speaks to them as adults. That's a level of parenting that has something to say for today."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046