A heart condition changed young Thomas Murray's life, and Capital Repertory audiences are cheering

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thomas Murray was hanging out at Delmar Marketplace recently when a friend introduced him to a cousin. The cousin said to Thomas, "Wow, you're short."

A 5-foot-3 freshman at Bethlehem Central High School, Thomas assumed a Southern accent and blurted, "I'm little, but I'm old."

The cousin may not have known where the words came from, but anyone who has read the book, or seen the film or play "To Kill a Mockingbird" knows that it's a line by the character Dill. He's a young boy, imaginative and wise beyond his years, who befriends the main characters, Scout and Jem.

Thomas portrays Dill in the fabulous production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at Capital Repertory Theatre. His performance has earned praise from fellow cast members and critics alike. But acting wasn't always his dream. It occurred to him only after he was diagnosed with a heart disease that had killed several members of his family.

Thomas has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disorder in which the heart muscles are thickened and stiff, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood. By not pumping enough blood, especially during strenuous exercise, an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia) can occur. Arrhythmia can cause sudden death.

Thomas' uncle, his father's brother, died of HCM when he was 16 -- two years older than Thomas is now. He was playing basketball and dropped dead. Thomas' paternal grandmother died of HCM. Tests have determined that more than half of Thomas' family on his father's side have the disease, says Marnie, Thomas' mother.

Thomas' father, Sean, a commercial painter, has the disease and had a defibrillator implanted in 2003. The wallet-size device continuously monitors heart rhythm and can automatically deliver a shock to restore normal rhythm.

Several months after finding out he had HCM in 2006, Thomas had one implanted, too. Both father and son also take medication. The defibrillator doesn't cure HCM, nor does it guarantee a long life.

"The cardiologist says there's no crystal ball," Marnie says. "You could live to be 100. Or you could live to tomorrow."

Thomas found out that he, of the four Murray children, was the only one with HCM the day before he was to sign up with his friends to play football.

"My dad told me I couldn't play football, couldn't play sports, couldn't overexert myself," Thomas says. "He said I'd have to find something else to do. I just didn't understand then what that meant. What do you mean I can't play sports? All my friends play sports."

For a year, Thomas says, he thought his parents were the meanest parents in the world. He mouthed off, defied their orders, quit caring about school work.

But gradually, he says, he came up with his own interpretation of his father's instruction.

"After a while I just finally decided: Why should I live life sad, when I could be gone tomorrow," Thomas says. "Honestly. Because this disease is so unpredictable. Like my mom said: No crystal ball.

"Sometime in the sixth grade I started looking at it like this: Life is like a good book. And it isn't about the number of pages. It's about the story. So I live life to the fullest each day, and treat it as if it's my last."

He performed in a couple of plays at school and put on plays with a family friend, Linda Shirey, including a production with a cast of eight in Thomas' backyard last summer that attracted an audience of 40. But it wasn't until he spent two summers at STAR (Summer Theater At the Rep), a Capital Rep program for students in the Capital Region interested in theater, that he decided he wanted to become an actor.

That didn't surprise his mother. She says Thomas, since he was 3, could act.

"He was an actor in how he approached people," she says. "He was brought up to greet people, shake their hand and look them in the eye, but he just knew how they wanted him to shake their hand and what they wanted to hear.

"If he met the Queen of England, he would be the most poised, polite person. He would use the proper language. I don't know how he'd even know. And if he met someone on the street, it'd be, 'Hey, what's up dude?' ... And he would just act. He would totally act."

Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, producing artistic director at Capital Rep and director of "To Kill a Mockingbird," identified Thomas at STAR as perfect for Dill. (The girls who play Scout also attended STAR.)

Thomas had the intensity and depth to portray a young Truman Capote, on which the quirky character of Dill is based, Mancinelli-Cahill says. He is extremely mature emotionally and very smart, she says. He's so dedicated that he researched the role and the play, she says, and now he knows more about the book and the culture of the time than anyone in the cast except, perhaps, Don Noble, a professional actor who plays Atticus Finch.

Once, during rehearsal with the dialect coach, Thomas questioned the way she was having him talk. She was working with the cast on their Alabama accents.

"Don't forget. I'm from Mississippi," Thomas told the coach. "My accent should reflect that I'm not from here."

Mancinelli-Cahill picks up the story.

"There was this silence. And then one of the actors said, 'You'll be picking up your Tony award, and we'll all be applauding you that day.'"

Thomas wants to pursue an acting career, the sooner the better, he says. So he wanted his portrayal of Dill to be spot on. From the moment he wanders on stage, wearing shorts pulled up to his belly button, a shirt buttoned to this throat and white socks falling down onto brown shoes, he captivates the audience with his mannerisms, observations and emotions.

And, he says, he's happiest when playing someone else, someone who didn't have to worry about heart disease or not playing football or being mean to parents who love him.

"I'm sure it probably crosses his mind," his mother says. "But this takes him away from that. In the theater world he's normal."

Tom Keyser can be reached at 454-5448 or by e-mail at


'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Where: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany

Performances: Through March 28

For times, dates and tickets: 445-7469,

Note: Thomas Murray portrays Dill in most, but not all, performances.


This story is available only in print.


This story is available only in print.


"Life is like a good book. And it isn't about the number of pages. It's about the story. So I live life to the fullest each day, and treat it as if it's my last."

-- Thomas Murray