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 http://atimetokillonbroadway.com/