A Time to Kill

John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, is long and, like many novels, detail oriented. (It also was a dud when it was first released. It wasn’t until Hollywood came calling about his subsequent novels that A Time to Kill got its due and was adapted for the screen.) Either one of those characteristics can make adapting a novel for the stage a tricky task, and both of them together certainly don’t make it any easier. Though this Rupert Holmes stage adaptation was not well-received, I like the production and applaud the creative team for what they did not include.

I saw the play with a friend who had never read the novel. During intermission and after the play, I mentioned that a lot was left out, but I meant this as a good thing. A novel, much like a television series, is all about the detail and the middle. It’s not about the end point (which is why, perhaps, so many series finales are unsatisfying). Instead of trying to cram in every turn of events from Grisham’s novel, Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) narrowed the focus of the play, centering in on the court case, the time in the courtroom and the question of what justice looks like. (A lack of focus is often what keeps stage adaptations from working.)

Set in Grisham’s fictional haunt Ford County, Mississippi, in the 1980s, A Time to Kill tells the story of the young, brash, white lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending the black Carl Lee Hailey, accused of doling out vigilante justice, killing the two low-life (white) men who beat and brutally raped his ten-year old daughter.

Scenic designer James Noone and projection designer Jeff Sugg work together to fill in the gaps left by some of Holmes’s cuts. For example, in the novel, we read (through an omniscient and omnipresent narrator) about the rape as it happens. Thankfully, this is not shown on stage, but the play does open with projections of woods and country roads, filmed with an unsteady hand, and you hear a little girl crying out for help. It’s harrowing and it immediately pulls you in.

At other times, the projections flash “ambiance” scenes as Noone’s lazy-Susan courtroom revolves during scene changes. This helps to give audiences a feel of Clanton, Mississippi, and of the characters it draws out. (Lindsay Jones’s original music complements the projections, as does Jeff Croiter’s lighting design.)

Holmes inserts a little more than his fair share of expository dialogue, though it’s forgivable because it is necessary in order to move the story along without getting too bogged down in the details from the source material. He also takes some liberties with characters, their back-stories and interactions (particularly with the female characters), but these liberties are only known to me because I recently read Grisham’s novel. Those coming to the play cold won’t give it a second thought.

What I was thinking about throughout act one, however, was that this is being touted as a courtroom drama and very little of the action had taken place in court. (Certainly one of the inciting incidents did, but, as in the book, much of the action took place elsewhere.) But then act two began and we were in the courtroom.
Truly, we were in the courtroom. Directed by Ethan McSweeny, once the trial began, we saw all the players in profile, and the judge, lawyers and witnesses turned directly to us and the audience became the jury. I really like this choice. Much like in the beginning of Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children’s second act, the audience became a character in the show—an incredibly important one, at that—as we were forced to think about what is right and what is wrong, to think about justice.

And what is so provocative and, at times, unsettling, about this material (first the novel, then the film and now the stage play) is that both sides make convincing arguments. When the slick Patrick Page (Spider-Man:Turn Off the Dark) makes his appeal as the prosecuting attorney whose eyes are set on the governorship, Rufus Buckley, you understand his point: a crime has been committed and the defendant brazenly admitted he was the perpetrator. The law is the law.

Then Jake the hotshot, a terrific, charming Sebastian Arcelus (The Blue Flower, House of Cards), gets his turn and you think, of course we have to find Carl Lee not guilty. Arcelus has the audience completely enraptured while giving the closing arguments. Then Buckley gets back up and the ambivalence overtakes you.

(One of the play’s omissions is the justification for making a plead of insanity. In the book, Grisham goes to great lengths to explain that the jury needs a legal reason to return a not guilty verdict. They cannot rule the defendant not guilty simply because they agree with what he did. The law is the law, and without legal justification (like an insanity plea), the jury must find the defendant guilty. I only mention this as a glaring omission because without this explanation, the drama over the medical experts could seem overdone.)

The talented cast does nice work throughout (though former senator Fred Dalton Thompson, playing the judge, went up on more than a few of his lines). John Douglas Thompson gives a layered performance as Carl Lee. Tom Skerritt, making his Broadway debut, seems to be having a blast playing Jake’s jolly drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks. Also making her Broadway debut is Ashley Williams, portraying the spunky young law student, Ellen Roark.

It’s a shame this play, with its focused script, integrated direction and design and talented cast, couldn’t find an audience here and is closing too soon. Would I praise it profusely? No, but it’s good and definitely worth a viewing. (Though it’s set in the 1980s, modern audiences will no doubt recognize present-day parallels, particularly with regard to the law and race relations.) Perhaps, like the John Grisham novel upon which it’s based, it will find glory in a “second printing” somewhere down the line.