A Time to Kill: Theater Review

Fred Dalton Thompson, John Douglas Thompson and Sebastian Arcelus
An illustrated audio book that makes an unconvincing case for theatrical presentation.

This courtroom thriller adapted for the stage from John Grisham's 1989 debut novel arrives on Broadway to coincide with publication of the author's sequel, "Sycamore Row."

NEW YORK – The audience becomes the jury in A Time to Kill, Rupert Holmes’ by-the-numbers stage adaptation of John Grisham’s page-turning 1989 debut novel. But unlike the workings of a real jury, there’s no room for ambiguity, moral complexity or startling insight in this formulaic courtroom drama about institutionalized racism in the Deep South, in which every liberal-pandering response has been hardwired into the dated material. Sturdy ensemble acting and Grisham’s compelling storytelling make this go down easily, but the production provides little persuasive evidence that the thriller needed to become a play.

Perhaps the main case for this page-to-stage venture – just like the many upbeat musicals molded out of brand-name movies that populate Broadway – is that it’s pure comfort food. This is the theatrical equivalent of summer beach reading or the almost obsolete low-concept popcorn movie, which means it’s not without a certain appeal.

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The producers appear to be counting on most of their audience to have seen the popular 1996 Joel Schumacher film version, given that in the central role of resourceful young defense attorney Jake Brigance, they cast Sebastian Arcelus (House of Cards), who bears a notable resemblance to his screen counterpart Matthew McConaughey. It can also be no accident that the Broadway opening coincides with Doubleday’s Oct. 22 publication of Grisham’s Sycamore Row, a sequel to A Time to Kill that sends Brigance back to the same courtroom for another incendiary race-related case.

While the story is set in the early ‘80s, Grisham was being less than subtle about the lingering reach of a recent past of segregation, KKK rallies and lynchings when he named his fictional Mississippi town Clanton (geddit?), and the county circuit judge Omar Noose (geddit?). This may be set in the post-Civil Rights era, but it’s clear we’re still in White Supremacist country.

Director Ethan McSweeny makes use of the high wooden walls of James Noone’s revolving set as a screen to show us events beyond the courthouse, starting with blurred backwoods footage over which a traumatized child’s voice cries out in desperation, “Daddy!” That voice belongs to the unseen Tonya, a 10-year-old African-American girl savagely raped and beaten by a pair of drunken, drugged-out rednecks. Played by Lee Sellars (with mullet) and Dashiell Eaves (with greasy ponytail), these two caricatures of no-good Southern white trash are plainly guilty.

After ascertaining that the perpetrators will probably do less than ten years’ prison time, Tonya’s devastated father Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) guns them down inside the courthouse before their case is tried. He engages Jake to represent him in the resulting murder trial, pleading not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity. Jake gets assistance from Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams), an ambitious liberal law student whose flirtatious manner the married man does his best to resist; and from his wily old pal Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt), a disbarred veteran attorney and a chronic lush.

Threats, intimidation tactics, burning crosses and worse shake Jake’s conviction, but his word of honor to Carl Lee keeps the defense on track even through some damaging slipups. As the trial nears its closing arguments, Klansmen and NAACP protesters go head to head outside the courthouse. But the major fireworks come from the theatrics of D.A. Rufus R. Buckley, the State’s prosecutor, shamelessly baiting the jury. Pouring on the oleaginous charm, Patrick Page’s droll, lip-smacking performance in that role (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie) is this production’s juiciest pleasure.

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McSweeny keeps the plot wheels turning with more efficiency than invention, though he’s aided by the versatility of Noone’s elegant design and Jeff Croiter’s textured lighting, lending a cinematic fluidity to the scene transitions. The problem is the material, which is mechanically predictable at every turn, right down to a pat conclusion that invites the spoonfed audience to congratulate itself for not being racist.

Fred Dalton Thompson is no stranger to the courtroom from his time on Law & Order. The actor finds both gravitas and humor in the aforementioned Judge Noose, who amuses with his limited patience both for the D.A.’s showboating and Jake’s cockiness.

Also strong is John Douglas Thompson, a powerful stage presence who has done astonishing work Off Broadway in O’Neill and Shakespeare. But aside from one emotionally charged scene in the witness box, his character is required to appear either stricken or stoical, without much scope to explore the nuances in between. As Carl Lee’s anxious wife, Tonya Pinkins is fine but similarly impeded by a role that lacks dimension. In some ways, the county sheriff (nicely played by Chike Johnson) is the more interesting black character, remaining loyal to his own community while also having a savvy understanding of how the white establishment works.

Arcelus and Williams get the job done but never stray beyond the outlines of their roles’ stock personalities. Williams’ part has far less meat than Sandra Bullock’s version of the same character in the movie. Skerritt, in his Broadway debut, gets by on twinkly charm, but the always-likeable actor is stuck with some of Holmes’ most on-the-nose writing in Lucien’s reflections toward the end of the play on the legacy of racism and the progress of the new South.

With its ostensibly provocative stance on vigilante justice, this is clearly conceived to play onstage as an edge-of-the-seat thriller, and for undiscerning theatergoers, perhaps it will work. But in execution, it’s more like a rote rehash of familiar material that demands zero thought from its audience.

Venue: Golden Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Sebastian Arcelus, John Douglas Thompson, Ashley Williams, Tom Skerritt, Tonya Pinkins, Chike Johnson, Patrick Page, Fred Dalton Thompson, Jeffrey M. Bender, Dashiell Eaves, J.R. Horne, John Procaccino, Tijuana T. Ricks, Lee Sellars
Director: Ethan McSweeny
Playwright: Rupert Holmes, based on the novel by John Grisham
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Music and sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Projection designer: Jeff Sugg
Presented by Daryl Roth, Eva Price, Jonathan Mann, Martian Entertainment, Peter May, Square 1 Theatrics, Judith Ann Abrams/Jayne Sherman, David Bryant/Rock Candy Productions, Bryan K.L. Byrd III/The Storyline Project, Mary Beth Dale/Avram Freedberg, Elliott Masie/Sara Beth Zivitz, Philip Meissner/Slosberg Productions