As a 69-year-old actress making her stage debut — in the touring production of a Broadway hit, no less — Mary Badham still marvels at the behind-the-scenes machinations that go into every performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“These kids are amazing,” Badham says. “Well, they’re not all kids. But for the most part, they’re a whole lot younger than I am.”
Although Badham is a theater novice, she knows “To Kill a Mockingbird” better than most: At 10 years old, she earned an Oscar nomination for playing Scout Finch in the beloved 1962 film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Six decades later, Badham is returning to 1930s Alabama as Mrs. Dubose — the Finch family’s racist, morphine-addicted neighbor — in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation that arrives at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday.
“It just really grounds the play having her in it, and just the wealth of her experience,” says Dorcas Sowunmi, who plays Mrs. Dubose’s helper. “It really does bring a rich life to the piece, having someone who has a long association with it, being a part of that world and really seeing it in its different iterations.”
After following the “Mockingbird” film with a handful of screen credits, including the Sydney Pollack movie “This Property Is Condemned” and the final episode of the original “Twilight Zone” series, Badham went nearly four decades without performing before making a cameo in the 2005 indie drama “Our Very Own.”
She instead dabbled in a variety of professions, including as a cosmetics salesperson, dress shop manager, nursing assistant, Red Cross instructor, college testing coordinator and art restorer. She got married and had two children, putting down roots in the Richmond area.
“A lot of people who are actors, they work at being an actor,” Badham says. “That’s what they want to do, and they actively go out and work toward getting jobs. But for me, that wasn’t my goal in life.”
Badham, however, never completely left “Mockingbird” behind. Over the years, she gave talks about “Mockingbird” for high schools, universities, book clubs and women’s groups. As the stage version arrived on Broadway, opening in December 2018, she saw it at the producers’ invitation. When representatives from the play gauged her interest in joining the touring production some time later — even though she had never acted onstage — Badham was stunned.
After expressing some initial hesitation about playing the bigoted Mrs. Dubose, Badham bought into the character’s role in the story, then read for Sorkin and others in New York and booked the part. Badham has been traveling since March with the tour, which also stars “The Waltons” alumnus Richard Thomas as Scout’s father, the idealistic attorney Atticus Finch.
“Theater is not anything that I could have ever imagined doing,” Badham says. “That’s been kind of interesting to learn.”
“It’s amazing to watch somebody who hasn’t done it find this newfound love for it,” adds Melanie Moore, the 30-year-old who plays Scout across different ages in the play. “To have never done a theater performance before, and to be doing it for the first time at  when there’s people clapping at just the mention of your character’s name, it was a lot of pressure. But she has held up beautifully.”
Badham’s presence is particularly mind-bending for Moore: While playing Scout, she shares scenes with the actress who immortalized that same character on-screen. Passing the torch from one Scout to another, Badham says she’s content to sit back and let Moore put her spin on the wide-eyed tomboy. Still, Moore acknowledges that notes of approval from Badham strike an especially resonant chord.
“In rehearsals, I would do things and make her laugh, and she would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was so Scout when you did that,’ ” Moore says. “Moments like that brought me so much joy. I felt like I was really bringing something to the character that she felt like she recognized and also surprised her. But I can’t think too hard about yelling things at the original movie Scout as Scout myself.”
While Badham has spent decades revisiting “Mockingbird,” she says the stage version — which reimagines the upstanding Atticus as a flawed protagonist who evolves — has helped her see the story in a new light.
Sorkin’s adjustments have proved polarizing, prompting a 2018 lawsuit from Lee’s estate that was later settled. But Badham endorses the updated take on Lee’s depiction of systemic racism, the loss of innocence and human nature’s duality, and emphasizes those themes’ renewed relevance amid the social justice movement’s resurgence.
“This book, the film, the play, it is an onion — as you peel it back, you get more and more and more,” Badham says. “I just hope that somehow this can help our country knit it back together again and to make people realize that we have to work together and love and take care of one another as a country. We’ve had this period of just really hard, hateful happenings that are still going on, and I’m just hoping this can bring us back to remembering who we are and who we want to be.”
If you go
To Kill a Mockingbird
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
Dates: June 21 through July 10.