Making a case for putting a Grisham novel onstage

(Michael Temchine for The Washington Post) - Judge Omar Noose (Evan Thompson), Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham), center, and Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) in John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” at Arena Stage.

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.

But theater?

“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.”

Broadway trial run

The idea for the stage project came from veteran New York theater producer Daryl Roth, who brought the notion to Arena. Partnerships between commercial producers and not-for-profit regional theaters have traditionally raised eyebrows: Arena and similar regional theaters were created not to be proving grounds for New York, but to create their own art. The problem is the “enhancement” money.

That’s the extra cash provided to a not-for-profit theater by a commercial producer to help finance a show aimed for New York. Arena has billed “A Time to Kill” as “pre-Broadway,” which Roth (who has produced six Pulitzer Prize winners in the past 18 years) says is indeed her goal.

Roth and Edgar Dobie, Arena’s managing director, decline to provide budget figures, but Dobie confirms that “A Time to Kill” is the biggest commercial project Arena has initiated. Roth is footing about 40 percent of the bill, Dobie says. (Arena will have another “pre-Broadway” project next spring with producer Margo Lion, the premiere of a musical adaptation of the book and movie “Like Water for Chocolate.”)

The Grisham name offers a substantial marketing cushion for a “new” drama that uses 15 actors – “a big cast for something where we don’t burst into song,” Holmes jokes. Even at that scale, the play is a major downsizing of a book that runs to 650 pages in its paperback version and was 900 pages in the draft that the then-unknown Grisham circulated to uninterested publishers.

“I said, ‘I’m going to put everything but the kitchen sink into this book,’ ” Grisham recalls of the three years he spent writing the novel, squeezing in time around his schedule as a lawyer. “Honky-tonks, strip clubs, jail — all the places I used to know.”

Holmes labels “A Time to Kill” “Dickensian” in its scope, detail and the way the names say something about the characters (the swagger of Brigance, the threat of Judge Noose). But compressing the book’s roving, discursive quality has meant boiling the setting down to the court and a few nearby locales. Holmes views courtroom dramas as “high theater”: “When the court is in session,” he suggests, “all the people in it are actors.”

Not the book, not the film

Director Ethan McSweeny agrees but adds that the genre can be static. Solutions to keep the show fluid involve a turntable set and a bank of 1980s televisions for news breaks, engineered by projections wiz Jeff Sugg. (Washington TV personality J.C. Hayward makes on-screen appearances as a reporter.)

McSweeny wasn’t hired until February, which means the process at Arena has moved at an unusually brisk commercial pace. Characters and plotlines have come and gone, and designers have been asked to stay loose as fresh ideas are tossed onstage. Actors were still absorbing new material last week.

Holmes explains: “If Ethan says a what-if, I’ll have the pages that would give us a what-if to look at in an hour.”

Because this story has been a bestseller and a movie staring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock, it’s hard to argue that Roth and Arena are not pirating a popular title. But Grisham thinks the central issue has staying power.

“In this country, race is always so complicated, and it’s still so complicated in the deep South,” Grisham says. “I still wonder what an all-white jury would do to Carl Lee now. . . . You still have hate groups out there. You still have crazy people, and certainly more guns.”

McSweeny, who calls the story’s case “a trial about race pretending to be a trial about murder,” says, “I wish we adapted more works of popular fiction to the stage. We used to. And they can become unique works of art.”

On that score, Grisham buffs know something McSweeny and Holmes don’t: how the movie strays from the book. The director and adapter haven’t seen the film.

“In point of fact,” Holmes says, “I am under contract not to look at the movie.”

McSweeny has had an assistant watch the film and alert him if the stage solutions stray toward the Hollywood version. Otherwise, the goal, per Grisham’s wish, is to work from the book.

“One of the things I was able to say to John Grisham was, ‘I think you’re going to like a lot of the dialogue, because it’s yours,’ ” Holmes says, adding, “We can sleep soundly at night knowing that we are not trying to shovel a movie onto the stage, because we don’t know what that is.”

Not to give anything away, but the movie and the book have different endings.

“I like my ending better, but I just don’t get hung up on changes in material,” Grisham says. He relates the advice Stephen King gave him years ago about how writers either don’t deal with Hollywood or do. About the second group, King said, “The first rule is to get all your money up front. The second rule is kiss it [the material] goodbye. The third is to expect it to be something different. If you don’t like that, go join the first group.”

So the risk at Arena?

“Zero risk,” Grisham says. “I’ve had my fun, made plenty of money on it. And if somebody else wants to give it a fling, let’s give it a shot.”

Nelson Pressley is a freelance writer.

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