Is John Grisham a theater guy?
Blockbuster movies, sure. Those same titles translated big-time in Hollywood.
And next season, “ The Firm ,” from 1991, will debut as an NBC TV series.
“Not really,” says the lord of the legal thriller.
“I have a hard time sitting for two hours watching anything,” Grisham, 56, says from Charlottesville, where the prolific author lives when he’s not in Mississippi. “I’m not hyper. I just get bored.”
Nonetheless, for the first time, one of his books has become a play — the 1989 “A Time to Kill,” which opens Sunday at Arena Stage. It’s Grisham’s sprawling first novel, about a poor black father who takes his chances at a trial after publicly gunning down the rednecks who raped his young daughter.
It’s still Grisham’s favorite work, in part because it was his first, but also because “it was so autobiographical,” Grisham says. The story focuses on Jake Brigance, an up-and-coming white Mississippi lawyer who defends Carl Lee Hailey, the grieving father who takes justice into his own hands.
No interest in theater
“I was a small lawyer in a small town about to starve to death,” the writer says. “I really wanted the big sensational trial that would give me a following. Never happened, but that was the dream.”
The dream did not include writing for the theater. Grisham cheerfully acknowledges that he knows zip about the stage. He needed an explanation of the preview period — the two weeks of working-the-kinks-out performances before the official opening. His plan for the opening has a Southern sports tang.
“I’m coming up for the pregame tailgate,” he says.
Grisham says he has largely been “hands-off” in the two years since the stage project was launched, with an adaptation by Rupert Holmes. “The worst thing I can do is tell Rupert how to write a play,” he says. “I told Rupert I don’t want to see this till opening night.”
This is indeed the same Rupert Holmes who wrote and sang the 1979 pop hit “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
“Yeah,” the affable Holmes says, sitting backstage at Arena, “and I’ve had five shows on Broadway since then, and I’ve written four years of a TV show.”
That used to be his gritted-teeth response to having an infernal one-note ID, even after his pop-music success. He’s a Tony Award winner for the book and score of Broadway’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and the four-year TV show was AMC’s “Remember WENN” (he wrote all 56 episodes, plus the underscoring and original songs).
Holmes also writes mysteries, and even before this project, he had something in common with Grisham: His first book, “Where the Truth Lies,” was made into a 2005 movie he had nothing to do with — just as Grisham didn’t have a hand in the 1996 film of “A Time to Kill.”
But he and Grisham part company at the footlights. The busy Holmes is such a theater rat that when he was a sought-after music producer in the 1970s, he booked recording sessions around his playgoing in London’s West End. In the past two years, he has written musical theater adaptations of Hollywood’s “The First Wives Club” and “Robin and the Seven Hoods.”