A Page-Turner Without the Pages By: Lauren Yarger
It’s a John Grishma page turner, with all of the elements we expect: a horrible crime, an impossible case and intrigue in the courtroom. This A Time to Kill is on stage, however, not in the pages of a book, as Rupert Holmes excellent adaptation of the best-selling thriller comes to Broadway.
This version, directed by Ethan McSweeny, is every bit as as sharply written as the original — a nail biter that has us engaged and eagerly anticipating the verdict every second of the two-and-a-half hour drama — even if we already have read the book.
The drama takes place in early 1980s Mississippi where racial tensions are anything but relaxed. A 10-year-old girl has been raped by two white men. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), decides to take justice in a highly white county into his own hands and kills the suspects while they are in jail awaiting trial.
Hailey asks white attorney, Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), who get along well enough with Blacks around Ford County, including Sheriff Ozzie Walls (Chike Johnson), to take his case. Jake has a reputation for winning cases, especially against DA and nemesis Rufus R. Buckley (Patrick Page), who hopes publicity from the controversial trial will propel him to the governor’s mansion.
Overwhelmed in his one-man practice, Jake turns to law mentor Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt), who takes a break form his inebriated existence in forced retirement on a Caribbean island to offer his assistance. Wilbanks produces fellow drunk, W. T. Bass (john Procaccino) to testify that Hailey’s mind snapped upon learning the circumstances of his daughter’s rape and that he can’t be held accountable for his actions. When Buckley challenges Bass’ credibility as an expert witness, Wilbanks starts hatching a plot to buy off the jury.
Also assisting Jake is hot-shot legal intern Ellen Roarke (Ashley Williams) who offers her cracker-jack research skills — along with anything else Jake might be interested in while his wife and daughter are out of town to avoid threats against them by the Ku Klux Klan, which isn’t exactly happy about a white man defending Hailey.
Jake and his client stick with each other, however, despite urging from the rape victim’s mother that her husband should allow the NAACP to take over his defense. Jake just lives in a different world, she argues.
Gwen (Tonya Pinkins) also isn’t happy that Carl’s actions have left her without his paycheck, alone to cope with their traumatized daughter while worrying about whether he will end up in the gas chamber.
The second act is all trial with the audience brilliantly positioned as jury.
McSweeny may have selected Arcelus more for his resemblance to Actor Matthew McConaughey, who starred in the 1988 movie, than for his ability to portray the affable, but go-for-the-jugular attorney. John Douglas Thompson is riveting in his portrayal of Hailey. We’re never quite sure how much he lost — or took — control over the situation. The ensemble here, is top notch.
Also turning in excellent performances are Pinkins, Page and Fred Dalton Thompson as Judge Omar Noose. A slip in dialogue was deftly handled by Thompson and Page the night I attended.
Grisham’s legal thrillers have readers flipping pages from start to finish. Holme’s really excellent stage adaptation creates the feeling for the live experience. My complaints: a rotating and expanding set (James Noone, design) and the use of projections (Jeff Sugg, design) and upbeat music (original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones), all of which are out of place and distract form the drama.
A Time to Kill runs at the Golden Theatre,252 W. 45th St., NYC.http://atimetokillonbroadway.com/
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