A Time to Kill

Arena Stage’s world premiere production of Rupert Holmes’ A Time to Kill is, in turn, funny, shocking, witty, and sly. It’s based on John Grisham’s breakthrough law-and-order novel and clearly conscious of its well-received 1996 film version starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Holmes’ play is debuting here in the hopes that its forward trajectory will propel it to a major theater in New York. To make that leap, though, it’s going to need some reworking. But we’ll get to that.

Brennan Brown as Rufus Buckley, Evan Thompson as Judge Omar Noose and Dion Graham as Carl Lee Hailey (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A Time to Kill—book, movie, and play—is, in a way, a 1980s version of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Struck by the details of a shocking rape case in his native Deep South, young attorney and budding author John Grisham transformed this real-world drama with one simple switch. Whereas both the original victim and perps were white, Grisham recast the victim as a young black girl, adding a completely new and challenging avenue to his fictionalized take on the case.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the play begins with the arraignment of the two white no-accounts accused in the savage rape of the young daughter of former military vet Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham). After a major plot twist, however, it’s Hailey himself who ends up as the accused, defended by erratic young attorney Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus).

Opposed in the court by politically ambitious D.A. Rufus Buckley (Brennan Brown), and aided and abetted by disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks (John C. Vennema) and oversexed legal intern Ellen Roark (Rosie Benton), Brigance struggles to defend his client amidst a rapidly escalating media circus. Things get ugly as both the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan crassly attempt to turn the whole event to promote their respective political agendas.

Given its melodramatic and relatively predictable plotline, Holmes’ play comes across in many ways like an extended episode of TV’s “Law and Order” franchise. We have a crime or crimes in which the guilt of the accused is increasingly obvious. But paradoxically, we have a courtroom in which almost anything can happen and in which justice is often only in the eye of the beholder.

Major characters are drawn as either righteous or reprehensible; supporting characters are either upright or devious; and the remaining characters are eccentric and colorful. All this adds a comfortable predictability to the proceedings, in spite of several quite violent plot twists.

Critics may be attempted to dismiss Holmes’ effort as entertaining, workmanlike, but trite. That’s not the case, however. It’s the socio-politics that make this play much more interesting than might readily be apparent. For running in the background, almost like a series of Wagnerian leitmotifs, is the evolution of Southern racial politics some twenty years after the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

Set in the mid-1980s as it is, the play revisits a rural Mississippi county that’s been partially—but not entirely—transformed over two decades. The county’s sheriff, the upright, somewhat taciturn Ozzie Walls (Chiké Johnson), is a black man, something unthinkable in 1960. The court’s amusingly named white judge, Omar Noose (Even Thompson) is tart, ironic, knows all the players, and tries to give them a genuinely fair shake.

But old resentments still simmer just beneath the surface. D.A. Rufus Buckley works hard to get an all-white jury to sit in judgment on the black defendant. The nearly moribund Klan uses the trial’s racial aspects as a pretext for raising a fresh generation of troops. As result, white attorney Brigance and his small crew of supporters—not to mention his family—faces an increasing threat of violence from those outraged by his defense of a black man.

Even so, there’s a fairer balance in Grisham’s and Holmes’ somewhat Newer South. Racial injustice is no longer a slam dunk. Some Southern whites at least—surprise!—actually possess a moral sense that’s capable of transcending racial animosity. Good guys and bad guys are not always quite who they appear to be. And small towns sometimes have a better sense of what justice is than the law itself.

It’s these interesting historical shifts, carefully—and occasionally clumsily—crafted into this play that elevate it above the level of TV’s weeknight schedules. Sure, there are a few clichés, particularly in the way rural Southern justice can wink-wink, nudge-nudge its way around inconvenient legal obstacles—a kind of low-level “Dukes of Hazzard” redux. (And that show is actually excerpted on one of the many TV monitors onstage during the intermission.) But the underground social commentary is here nonetheless, even though it’s mostly hidden beneath the crackling action and witty repartee.

The play’s cast turns in an excellent ensemble performance, particularly among the major players. As Judge Noose, Evan Thompson’s amusingly dry wit and excellent sense of observation owe at least a partial debt to Fred Gwynne’s sly judge in the film “My Cousin Vinnie.”

Sebastian Arcelus’ Jack Brigance turns out to be a complex character, capable of exercising morality as it pertains to his marriage and family, but willing to resort to less than legal means if the result gets his client off the hook. He’s a half-effective attorney when we first see him, although he fitfully rises to the occasion as the tension rises.

As hormone- and ambition-driven law student Ellen Roark, Rosie Benton looks as glamorous and privileged as her character actually is. She’s driven by her own sense of entitlement and post-feminist empowerment. But fortunately, she already has a sharply-honed legal sense as creative as it is hard-nosed, which proves to be a key element as Brigance crafts his client’s defense.

D.A. Rufus Buckley is as close as anyone in the play comes to being the cliché of a corrupt, driven Southern politician. His ambition is as naked as Huey Long’s, while his cornpone is as thick as Foghorn Leghorn’s. Nonetheless, Brennan Brown, in his portrayal of Buckley, gives the character little flashes of vulnerability that ground him a little closer to reality.

Lesser characters are remarkably well-defined even in their brief appearances. For example, as dueling psychiatrists, Jonathan Lincoln Fried and Jeffrey M. Bender are quite good in portraying a lopsided battle between an ordinary practicing shrink (Fried’s Dr. W.T. Bass) and a condescending, well-known professor-practitioner (Dr. Rodeheaver). Their uneven jousting is something of a metaphor for this play in which the supposedly dumber “Everyman” type characters often end up getting the better of the elites who are prone to sneer at them.

Production values for this show are quite high. A Time to Kill employs a surprisingly large cast of 15 actors; an elaborate set of sliding windows, multiple 1980s-style TV monitors  running montages of historical newsclips and contemporary dramas, sitcoms, and commercials (Doublemint, anyone?); and a barrage of surprising special effects we won’t reveal.

Given all this, the show obviously took a bigger than usual budget to make it happen. This is the result of what the playbill terms a “special arrangement” with New York producer Daryl Roth. Roth clearly hopes to bring the play to New York to the point where she was willing to fund a more-elaborate-than-usual kickoff/tryout in a theater known for its thoughtful audiences.

Roth’s gamble is potentially a good one. The play’s distinctly Southern characters are sharp, not caricatures, and comfortably liberal themes of justice and egalitarianism lie just beneath the surface even in their seemingly far-distant world.

But there’s an X-factor that seems to be missing here, one that could make for a short run in New York if it’s not addressed. There is a layer of intellectual complexity that’s missing beneath all the surface activities. While most of the play’s characters are reasonably believable, none possess much intellectual depth or heft. They are more than two-dimensional, but just barely.

Jake Brigance can experience anxiety and angst, Ellen Roark can radiate flashes of sex and brilliance, and D.A. Buckley can channel Boss Hogg. But nowhere here do we see a real sense of self-awareness among any of the characters. The entertainment value of this play is high. But in between the characters’ ears, for the most part, there’s no there, there, as Gertrude Stein once said.

Mixing some real thoughtfulness and self-awareness into the grits might give this play an edge. It’s not really quite here yet in Holmes’ fast-paced, glitzy play. But quietly adding some internal depth and intellect to just a few of the characters, particularly Jack Brigance, could provide that crucial, buzz-generating edge that might give this play a decent run in its hoped-for afterlife in the Big Apple.

The Arena Stage production of A Time to Kill is scheduled to run thru June 19, 2011 at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC.
Details here.
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A Time to Kill

by Rupert Holmes
Adapted from the original novel by John Grisham.
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Terry Ponick

Recommended.

Running time: Two and one-half hours including intermission.

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