by: Sandi Durell
Nine out of ten have either seen the movie or read the novel by John Grisham, “A Time to Kill,” now adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes.
It’s obvious that Sebastian Arcelus was chosen, not only because he’s a fine actor, but because of his resemblance to Matthew McConaughey who played the title role of Jake Brigance, the attorney, in the film version. This was one of the best courtroom dramas both as a read and as a movie. However, it can now almost be referred to as a dramedy, what with all the quips and laugh lines thrown in for good measure into this stage version.
It’s the early 1980s in Mississippi, during a racially charged time period, the KKK still very much a part of the Southern heritage when two white rednecks (Lee Sellars and Dashell Eaves), drunk and on drugs, rape, brutalize and almost hang a young 10 year old black girl on her way back home. They are jailed, awaiting trial, one having already signed a confession, when the girl’s father Carl Lee Hailey, a most believable grieving father played by John Douglas Thompson, takes the law into his own hands – an eye for an eye – and shoots them both dead. Carl Lee’s wife, played by Tonya Pinkins, is nervously stoical only wanting him to come home.
Brigance takes on the case with an insanity plea, as the story revolves literally on a turntable stage, set pieces flying up and down to distinguish between courtroom and office (set design James Noone, lighting Jeff Croiter). The hearing and trial go before Judge Omar Noose (ha, ha), played by TV’s Fred Dalton Thompson, and with a name like Noose, one wants to be very careful.
Brigance’ opponent is D.A. Rufus Buckley, played smugly self assured by Patrick Page, in a most theatrical attorney-style, who has an eye on the Governor’s Mansion and is politicking every inch of the way.
Jake is aided by newbie young, ambitious female law student Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams) and his old friend Lucien Wilbanks (a lushly lush Tom Skerritt), who has been disbarred.
There’s a fine portrayal by Chike Johnson as the Sheriff who has to do double duty as a law figure and also as a friend of Carl Lee and his family.
Despite threatening phone calls to himself and his family, legal beagle Brigance stays firm, twisting and turning evidence and words before the Judge and jury, in this case we, the audience, as we hear shouts from outside from distant protestors from both sides.
Director Ethan McSweeny does a yeoman’s job keeping the play moving. But the book and the movie were, at times, knuckle biters whereas the stage adaptation, with its limitations, fails to produce that level of excitement. It’s a sit back and enjoy what you see happening.
*Photos Carol Rosegg
A Time to Kill at the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street, NYC, running time 2 hrs. 30 min. 212 239-6200