Posted in courtroom drama, deep South, John Grisham, KKK, lurid, murder, race, racism, rape of a child, Rupert Holmes

"A Time To Kill" also offers a time to heal

John Grisham is a masterful story teller. His plots are full of intimate and expert details of the workings of courtroom proceedings.

Ashley Williams, Sebastian Arcelus and Tom Skerritt in Broadway’s A”A TimeTo Kill”. (c) Carol Rosegg

In “A Time To Kill,” based on Grisham’s classic best-selling novel written in 1989 and turned into a blockbuster movie in 1996, the plot is a scintillating mixture of  racism, rape, and murder.

Set in Ford County, Mississippi in the early 1980’s, “A Time To Kill”  revolves around Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), the father of a ten year old rape victim who kills the two men who raped his little girl. Carl Lee is black and Billy Ray Cobb (Lee Sellars) and Pete Willard (Dashiell Eaves) are white.

As  adapted by Rupert Holmes for the stage, “A Time To Kill” moves quickly from the men’s admission of the crime to Carl Lee’s dramatic courthouse killing.
Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) agrees to defend Carl Lee. His defense centers on the testimony of an unreliable psychiatrist, Dr. W.T. Bass (John Procaccino) brought in by Jake’s old disbarred mentor, the drunken Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt).

Jake reluctantly takes on help in the form of an ambitious liberal Boston law student, Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams in an auspicious Broadway debut) as a de facto law clerk.  Judge Omar Noose (Fred Dalton Thompson) predictably refuses them the change of venue they request, and the trial is on.

 Tijuana Ricks as court reporter Norma Gallo, Patrick Page as
District Attorney Rufus R. Buckley, Fred Dalton Thompson as Judge Omar Noose,
 and John Douglas Thompson as Carl Lee Hailey
in Broadway’s “A TimeTo Kill”. (c) Carol Rosegg

Their unctuous opponent, Rufus R. Buckley (Patrick Page), the district attorney for nearby Polk County, is prosecuting the case with aims for the Governor’s mansion.

The scenic designs by James Noone make use of a circular backdrop of slats that move us from courtroom to Jake’s office smoothly but dramatically. There are some wondrous special effects for which the Technical Supervisor, Peter Fulbright should be applauded.

In the large, well-directed (by Ethan McSweeny) cast, John Douglas Thompson’s Carl Lee is stalwartly portrayed. Also standing out are Patrick Page whose Buckley is opportunistic and slimy. Sebastian Arcelus is commendable and appealing as the young attorney, who is both of his place in time and beyond it.  We’ve already welcomed Ashley Williams for her charming turn as the tough and genius– “it runs in the family”– Ellen Roark.

It feels like a bit of wishful hindsight of racial harmony in Rupert Holmes’ vision of “A Time To Kill” undermining the premise of the story. It’s a very moving production, but this small point has to be asked: How does a black sheriff, Ozzie Walls (well played by Chike Johnson) get elected in a county teeming with KKK. A Grisham novel, while always a page-bruner, isn’t elegantly written; it runs on the plots and Grisham’s insights into the legal system. It’s wise to see the movie or, as in this case, the stage version.

Despite the grim facts of “A Time To Kill,” there is a lightness and ease in the drama. Rupert Holmes, no stranger to imaginative adaptations (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” recently at Roundabout, for an instance), has solidified and shortened Grisham’s plot to intensify its theatrical qualities. “A Time To Kill” is a solid Broadway hit.

For more about “A Time To Kill,” please visit

Posted in based on a true story or event, courtroom drama, drama, film version in 1995, lawyers, Tony nominee Chad Kimball stars

Justice Is Illusive in "Murder In The First"

Chad Kimball as Willie Moore, Ryan Scoble as a guard, Guy Burnet as Willie’s attorney, Henry Davidson, Thomas Ryan as Judge Clawson, Jim Lorenzo as Alcatraz’s Assistant Warden Milton Glenn, and Darren Kelly as DA Bill McNeil in “Murder in the First” at 59E59 Theaters. Photo © Carol Rosegg.

Since justice is illusive, the courtroom always makes a compelling setting for drama.

“Murder in the First,” at 59E59 Theaters through July 1st, is a rivetting courtroom drama. Inspired by a headline-making actual trial from the early 1940s, in 1995 Dan Gordon turned these real events into a film, and now has moved the proceedings to the stage.

Willie’s attorney, Henry Davidson (Guy Burnet) visits Willie Moore (Chad Kimball) in his cell in “Murder in the First” at 59E59 Theaters. Photo © Carol Rosegg.

Gordon’s play tells the story of Willie Moore (Chad Kimball), who upon being released from the dungeons at Alcatraz, murdered a fellow inmate. The large, impassioned cast delivers the gripping tale of Henry Davidson’s (Guy Burnet) surprising defense in a Federal court in San Francisco.

His day in court: Willie’s attorney, Henry Davidson (Guy Burnet) pleads in front of Judge Clawson (Thomas Ryan) with Willie Moore (Chad Kimball) in the witness chair in “Murder in the First” at 59E59 Theaters. Photo © Carol Rosegg.

Standing out in this excellent panoply of players are Joseph Adams as a wannabe Winchell named Houlihan, and Larisa Polonsky as Mary McCasslin an ambitious lawyer in love with both Henry and her job at a time when women were not generally hired by the public defender’s office. John Stanisci is Henry’s older brother Byron, a successful corporate lawyer who tries to protect Henry from himself. Also giving a superb performance is Robert Hogan as the bewildered warden of Alcatraz Harold Humsen, a man who made rehabilitation the business of prisons but was outdone by the demands of running “the rock.” Lastly, Darren Kelly as the DA Bill McNeil certain of winning his case exudes supercilious confidence in a fine portrayal.

Guy Burnet (background), Anthoula Katsimatides and Chad Kimball in “Murder in the First” at 59E59 Theaters. Photo © Carol Rosegg.

Chad Kimball and Guy Burnet carefully measure the mettle of their characters in stirring performances. Hank and Willie develop an unlikely friendship in this moving drama.

“Murder in the First,” beautifully paced by Michael Parva’s directorial hand, is well-written and tense. The sets designed by Mark Nayden split the stage, moving the action fluidly with the aid of David Castaneda’s lighting from the cage in which Willie is held to the court over which Judge Clawson (Thomas Ryan) presides to Henry’s offices or home.

Excellent writing, good acting, fine staging all add up to a stellar “Murder in the First.”

For a schedule or tickets, please visit

Photos © Carol Rosegg l-to-r: Chad Kimball with Larisa Polonsky; Larisa Polonsky with Guy Burnet; and Guy Burnet with John Stanisci in “Murder in the First” at 59E59 Theaters. Photo.