Contributor Lindsay B. Davis is a tough juror for the first-ever stage adaptation of a John Grisham novel, A Time to Kill.
Classic courtroom dramas of the stage, from Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind to Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, feature passionate trial attorneys whose commitment to justice is tested in unusually high stakes situations. Not unlike Icarus, these larger than life lawyer characters often fly their idealistic wings dangerously close to the sun and ignore signs of danger. We love them for their ambition even as we fear someone is about to get burned.
In the case of A Time to Kill, a new courtroom drama at Broadway’s Golden Theatre (based on John Grisham’s best-selling novel and film of the same name), what could be an attractive new addition to this pantheon never clears the high bar set by its predecessors or the source material. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson’s star power aside, the screenplay on its own is tight and the novel a great, zippy read, which serves as inspiration for Rupert Holmes’ stage adaptation.
The year is 1984 and Mississippi-based attorney Jake Brigand (Sebastian Arcelus of Broadway’s Rent and Wicked, currently featured in House of Cards on Netflix) is a handsome, waspy, Ole Miss grad who has successfully defend three black men in criminal trials. After the brother of one of these men, Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson, a classical theater heavyweight with prior roles in Richard III, Othello, Cyrano de Bergerac and Julius Ceasar), turns a shotgun on two white guys for allegedly raping his 10-year-old daughter, he turns to Jake to handle his case. Joining the defense counsel are a plucky law student from the northeast, Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams, whose numerous TV credits include Good Morning Miami and How I Met Your Mother), and, less formally, Jake’s booze-happy friend and former law professor, Lucien Willbanks (Tom Skerritt, of Picket Fences and the film M*A*S*H fame). Opposing counsel is lead by the theatrical and righteously charismatic Rufus Buckley (Broadway veteran Patrick Page of The Lion King and Cyrano De Bergerac, to name a few) with Judge Noose presiding. Former senator, presidential candidate, author and actor, Fred Thompson, in his Broadway debut, brings Noose to life with understated charm; he is one of few performers in this production who resist the urge to overact.
Instead of a heated, terse and tight narrative, A Time to Kill, as directed by Ethan McSweeny, is a lengthy, two hour and twenty-five minute trek through what feels like a Mississippi bog. What could be an electric, contentious, stimulating story about morality, “eye for an eye” justification for murder, finding one’s value compass, race relations in 1984, mental illness as legal defense, the U.S. legal system at large and sexual chemistry in the workplace (just for starters), gets the sanitary treatment, as if to smite any heat and danger that could erupt from the conflation of these themes.
Arcelus’ Jake is exceedingly laid back, his passion for justice or notoriety at a low flame, as is his chemistry with Williams’ Roark. While Thompson’s Carl Lee along with his wife Gwen (Tonya Pinkins) are deeply sympathetic characters, the evocation of their child’s brutal rape is staged by way of an odd, multi-media projection of blurry trees and the sound of a little girl’s echoing pleas for help. Without actual detail, you lose the emotional heft behind the justification and rationale for Carl Lee’s actions.
Additional ineffectively staged events in the story include a KKK attack on Jake’s family house with wife and daughter inside and Carl Lee’s murder of his own daughter’s rapists. The former is done by bizarrely jutting a massive burning cross onto the courtroom set, which does nothing to raise the stakes crucial to the storytelling except make the audience wonder whether a fire hazard in the theater is being breached. Furthermore, by casting lead actors who resemble those from the movie, A Time to Kill suffers from a comparison game. Instead of forgetting the movie, you want for its talent.
It also does not help to have certain key players in multiple roles. In a major casting misstep, the two rapists seen in Act I (Lee Sellars and Dashiell Eaves) are brought back in Act II – Eaves as an attorney and Sellars as Mississippi’s leading psychiatrist and key witness for the prosecution. Even without their mullets and hillbilly garb they are easily recognizable, which immediately pulls focus from the rest of the action and breaks that precious suspension of belief, which the production already struggles to maintain.
A Time to Kill is guilty of theatrical manslaughter in the third degree, as I’m sure the intention was not to kill the source material but unfortunately the result.
A Time to Kill
252 West 45th Street
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.