Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

A Time to Kill

Also see Susan's review of Old Times

Dion Graham and Sebastian Arcelus
Arena Stage in Washington has a crowd-pleaser in its current premiere production of A Time to Kill, Rupert Holmes' stage adaptation of John Grisham's first novel. The story of racial injustice and legal posturing fits neatly into the tradition of the courtroom thriller, but if its message is largely familiar, it's still a gripping and entertaining piece of theater.

As staged by Ethan McSweeny on James Noone's busy set, the media plays an ever-present role in the action—to the point that local television news anchor JC Hayward appears (on video screens) as a newscaster reporting on the onstage trial.

Grisham's story concerns a young lawyer in 1985 Mississippi, Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), and his defense of Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham), an African-American man who kills the two white men who admitted raping and beating his 10-year-old daughter. "This is the New South," insists Jake's well-bred wife Carla Jane (Erin Davie, underused), but the facts of the case are incendiary enough to bring out the Ku Klux Klan and, ultimately, the National Guard.

The moral issues are straightforward and so are the major characters, all cast and performed with strength and authority: Jake, determined to seek justice for a wronged man—but also to get the benefits that come from winning such a high-profile case; his antagonist, District Attorney Rufus Buckley (Brennan Brown), slick and openly greedy for political gain; Judge Omar Noose (Evan Thompson), a down-home fellow who doesn't stand for any nonsense in his courtroom; Ellen Roark (Rosie Benton), a law student who wants so badly to be involved in the case that she offers to work for Jake for free; and Lucien Wilbanks (John C. Vennema), Jake's mentor, who also offers assistance despite the fact that he's been disbarred. And, of course, Carl Lee, whom Graham portrays as a man of dignity and righteousness who understands that sometimes what's legal conflicts with what's right.

In other words, this is comfort-food theater of a high order. The issues are clear-cut, the heroes and villains are obvious, and things work themselves out without too many unexpected twists—and it's all done at a very polished level.

Arena Stage
A Time to Kill
May 6th - June 19th
Adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes, based on the book by John Grisham, by special arrangement with Daryl Roth
Vernon Pate, courtroom deputy: Hugh Nees
Jake Brigance, attorney: Sebastian Arcelus
Ozzie Walls, sheriff of Ford County: Chiké Johnson
Judge Omar Noose, circuit judge for Ford County: Evan Thompson
Norma, a court reporter: Trena Bolden Fields
Deputy/Cameraman: Michael Marcan
Drew Tyndale, a public defender/Cora Cobb: Deborah Hazlett
Carl Lee Hailey: Dion Graham
Rufus Buckley, D.A. of Polk County: Brennan Brown
Pete Willard/D.R. Musgrove, co-counsel to the district attorney: Joe Isenberg
Billy Ray Cobb/Terrell Grist, a redneck/Dr. Rodeheaver: Jeffrey M. Bender
Felicia Albright, a reporter: JC Hayward
Carla Jane Brigance: Erin Davie
Lucien Wilbanks: John C. Vennema
Ellen Roark: Rosie Benton
Stump Sisson, Imperial Wizard for Mississippi, KKK/Dr. W.T. Bass: Jonathan Lincoln Fried
Tonya Hailey: Nisa Shelton
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Joan Marcus

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