Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 20, 2013
A Time to Kill Based on the classic best seller by John Grisham. Adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Scenic design by James Noone. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Fight Director David S. Leong. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Sebastian Arcelus, John Douglas Thompson, Ashley Williams, Tom Skerritt, Tonya Pinkins, Chiké Johnson, Patrick Page, Jeffrey M. Bender, Dashiell Eaves, J.R. Horne, John Procaccino, Tijuana T. Ricks, Lee Sellars, Philip Kerr, Morocco Omari, Brenna Palughi, and Fred Dalton Thompson.
Oh, it trieshow hard it tries. It works tirelessly to humanize its victims, most notably Carl Lee Hailey, the black man in 1984 Mississippi who guns down his ten-year-old daughter's rapists before they can be brought to trial, and Jake Brigance, the white lawyer who's defending him in court in the stark-white county. Then there's florid, melodramatic prosecutor Rufus Buckley, comic-relief judge Omar Noose, and as many blood-curdling sound effects (by Lindsay Jones) and projections of Ku Klux Klan rallies (Jeff Sugg) as director Ethan McSweeny can cram in.
But none of these attempts, earnest though they may be, can overcome the problem that the legal-world wrangling scenes are the narrative's least interesting. Jake and Rufus call very few witnesses, and none of them is electrifying; the gotchas, in the isolated moments in which they occur, are of the low-key psychological variety; the characters are broadly drawn; and the outcome of what they're constantly arguing is never seriously in doubt.
What energized both Grisham's novel and its 1996 film version were all the other events the case ignited that explored how the white-versus-black dynamics of the South hadn't been magically transformed in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. The Klan, the community, and the uncertain nature of the former's integration into the latter provided the heatand watching it play out on the streets and in the hearts and minds of the ostensibly simple folks in the small country town of Clanton was where the drama truly lay.
Of course, none of that can easily be shown onstageat least given the economic realities of today's theatre for non-musicals. So, aside from the aforementioned technological tricks and a few unassuming nods to burbling social unrest, Holmes and McSweeny have forgone all of it. They've instead focused most of their time and energy on what goes on behind the closed doors of the courtroom, law offices, and jailhouse in which the action is generally confined, creating exactly the forward momentum (or lack thereof) you might expect.
These aren't sufficient replacements for everything you lose, and they play more as temporary respites from the doldrums induced by bringing everything indoors. Through no fault of set designer James Noone, who has crafted attractive if inexpensive-looking sets (evocatively lit by Jeff Croiter) that compress all the necessary scenic elements into the realm of a full-stage turntable, the interior world makes the story feel untenably small and any emotional engagement in it is nonexistent. When a bomb comes within seconds of detonating or a burning cross is unveiled onstage and you must work to stifle a yawn, something is seriously wrong.
The good news is that the performances are nicely rendered, and that eases the process of sitting through all this. Sebastian Arcelus is not an especially charismatic actor, and a stronger dash of star quality would definitely spice up things, but he's likable and funny enough to carry the show on his own terms. He has a more than capable partner in John Douglas Thompson, who beautifully balances rage and sentimentality as Carl Lee, and does more than anyone else onstage to ram home the story's roiling undercurrents of angst.
Fred Dalton Thompson brings authoritative comedy to Judge Noose, coming close to compensating for the complexities of his character that have been all but excised from the original source. Holmes has not found a satisfactory way to treat Ellen Roark, the Boston law student doing pro bono work for Jake, but Ashley Williams plays the role spryly and well. And Tonya Pinkins brings several of her trademark doses of long suffering to Carl Lee's wife, Gwen, one of the few completely innocent characters on hand and the one on which our sympathies most naturally rest.
Among all the fine performers, there is one particular standout: Patrick Page. As good a comic actor as Broadway currently has (he was a sparkling jolt in 2012's Cyrano de Bergerac, and of course as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), he jumps feet first into playing Rufus, capturing every facet of his rock-ribbed professionalism and his sleazy tendency toward self-promotion. Page forces you to remember that Rufus lives his life exclusively in the public eye and keeps his emotions easily at hand, so there's no shortage of dazzling colors from which he can draw.
He really comes into his own in the tense final scenes, displaying just how far an actor can honestly go without chewing the scenery and leaving you hungering for more. It's only Page's deeply theatrical liveliness that suggests the rigorously entertaining and genuinely unpredictable A Time to Kill that might have been. It may not do Holmes or Grisham any favors to leave you rooting for the bad guy, but without Page you'd be as challenged to find someone to root for at all as you would be to merely stay awake.