In “A Time To Kill,” a play based on John Grisham’s first published novel, a black man shoots the two white men who raped his ten-year-old daughter, killing them right in the Mississippi courthouse where he is then tried for their murders.
The question that the play is supposedly asking is: Can his young white attorney save this black father from punishment in a Mississippi county still tainted by racism?
But the question on my mind through most of it was: Why doesn’t this play work better for me?
It has a cast with some of the best stage actors in New York, as well as several with some star appeal; the play marks the Broadway debuts of both Tom Skerritt and Fred Dalton Thompson, that all-purpose lawyer/Senator/actor who, with a shaved head, is portraying presiding Judge Noose. It is based on a best-selling story, adapted for the stage by Tony-winning songwriter and playwright Rupert Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”). It arguably already has proven its dramatic potential, as one of the nine Grisham books that have been made into movies, this one in 1996 starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson. It promises a glimpse into both the legal system and the racial dynamics of the “New South” from a writer who was both a lawyer and a politician in Mississippi.
Yet “A Time To Kill” comes off as predictable, pedestrian, middle-brow and manipulative.
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This is certainly not the cast’s fault. All give persuasive performances, although it was hard to shake the notion that some see this as their day job, much as they might a role in a legal procedural on TV.
The problem may be that the play is treading on territory that has been explored by works that are far superior, most obviously “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Yes, “A Time to Kill” takes place in the 1980’s — the mostly white county has a black sheriff – but there is little real insight into the changing racial landscape. The play, which takes place almost exclusively in the courtroom and focuses on legal strategy, offers none of the heft, nuance or suspense of the great legal dramas. “In Cold Blood” similarly sticks our face in a brutal crime, but Truman Capote’s work also forces us to consider the humanity of the criminals. By contrast, the rapists murdered in “A Time To Kill” are simply racist scum, quickly dispatched. We have no choice but to invest 100 percent of our sympathies with the salt-of-the-earth father Carl Lee Hailey, played by John Douglas Thompson, who has demonstrated amazing acting chops elsewhere, such as in the Irish Rep’s production of The Emperor Jones. Above all, we are meant to identify with his lawyer, Jake Brigance, the local hero ex-quarterback played by Sebastian Arcellus, a winning performer last seen on Broadway in Elf. Jake’s legal opponent is the district attorney, played superbly by the deep-voiced Patrick Page, last seen on Broadway as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and he is no less of a villain here; he is such a knave that he’s politically ambitious, running for governor of the state. So it’s Elf versus the Green Goblin, Green Good vs. Green Evil. Then they throw in the Ku Klux Klan, and cross burnings. Though the incendiary incidents pile up, there are fewer surprises here, and certainly less intellectual complexity to engage us, than in the average episode of Law and Order or The Good Wife.
As if to compensate for “A Time to Kill” being a play rather than a movie, director Ethan McSweeny keeps making the stage move. The actors stand on a Lazy Susan, which turns in-between each scene, accompanied by a burst of light and music, to reveal yet another angle at which to view the witness stand, judge’s desk, and the tables of the two opposing attorneys. Projections occasionally fill the back wall – an out-of-focus video of the tops of trees (presumably where the girl was raped); a phalanx of talking heads (presumably television journalists reporting on the progress of the trial.) The design of “A Time To Kill” feels pointlessly busy.
John Grisham has said that “A Time To Kill” is not just his first book, but his favorite. It didn’t sell well when it was first published in 1989, taking off only after the popularity of his later novels, which he calls “another type of book – the legal thriller.” So even the author of “A Time To Kill” acknowledges it’s not thrilling — and the stage adaptation, which cuts out characters and motivations, is even less so.
A Time To Kill
John Golden Theater
Adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes based on the novel by John Grisham
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
James Noone (Scenic Design), David Woolard (Costume Design), Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design), Lindsay Jones (Sound Design), Jeff Sugg (Projection Design), David Leong (Fight Director)
Fred Dalton Thompson
John Douglas Thompson
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
Tickets: $69.50 – $132
“A Time to Kill” is set to run through March 2, 2014