A Time to Kill

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Editorial Review

Arena Stage's ‘A Time to Kill’: A practice run for bigger things?

By Peter Marks
Monday, May 23, 2011

Can you accurately finish this statement? British actors are to Shakespeare as ___________ actors are to legal procedurals. If you replied “Danish” or “Brazilian” — BZZZZZZZ!!!!! I’m so sorry. The correct answer was, yes of course, “American.”

To check this fact, saunter over to Arena Stage, where an ensemble 16 players strong is demonstrating this proud national specialty in “A Time to Kill,” a world-premiere adaptation of John Grish­am’s 1989 debut novel, and the first of the writer’s cloak-and-gavel page turners to be transformed into a play.

The results, as evidenced by director Ethan McSweeny’s slickly efficient production in Arena’s Kreeger Theater, are pretty much what you’d expect. The actors, many of them card-carrying members of the Dick Wolf Drama Guild, slip with uniform assurance into the stock personalities, from the cocky self-righteousness of the D.A., Rufus Buckley (Brennan Brown), to the manly stoicism of the defendant, Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham).

The plot, too, in tailoring by playwright Rupert Holmes, adheres to the prevailing formula, and even if you’ve never Kindled Grisham’s well-crafted bestsellers, you would be able to place a winning bet on the outcome 15 minutes into the 2½-hour show. It’s mashed-potatoes theater, easy to digest and decently filling, but nothing you have not swallowed 1,000 times before.

“A Time to Kill” has already been in wide release as a book and a 1996 movie, starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bul­lock and Kevin Spacey. The courtroom format lends itself economically to the stage, although ­Holmes and McSweeny don’t ever make clear what new aspect of “A Time to Kill” they want to elucidate. The legal jousting between Rufus and hero defense attorney Jake Brigance (the ultra-smooth Sebastian Arcelus, wearing his hair combed back just like Mc­Con­­aughey) is not ingenious enough to keep us guessing: Any episode of “The Good Wife”— the best show on TV, in my humble opinion — tries far harder to outwit us.

And the thematic backdrop of vestigial racism in the New South (the story is set in 1985) remains just that: window dressing. The fiery reaction to the case unfolding in the Clanton, Miss., courthouse is mostly confined to concocted news footage broadcast on a phalanx of television sets embedded in James Noone’s turntable courtroom set. The race card is played one time in court, but the manipulative way that it’s pulled, and the surprising identity of the manipulator, are mere devices to get us to a resolution. The element of drama that examines motive, explores its consequences, is overlooked.

As for the case, ladies and gentlemen, the provoking event is this: Two white men rape a 10-year-old black girl. What next transpires is supposed to have some shock value, so I will try not to give too much away. It involves her father, who as a result hires the whiz kid defense attorney. Facing the wrath of the Klan, the white lawyer looks to win an acquittal for his new client with a dubious defense. The questions raised have to do with how much empathy white Mississippi can feel for its black citizens.

It’s a compelling scenario, although Holmes has not found an effective way of conveying the tension. One of the weaknesses is in the transparent imbalance in the courtroom combatants. See, Rufus is a doofus; Brown’s almost too good at unctuousness. And Jake is so appealingly on top of his game — heck, even the crusty Southern judge (a terrific Evan Thompson) seems to have a soft spot for him — that you start to feel a little pity for the outclassed prosecutor.

Because of the level of affinity the actors exhibit for the material, an audience can feel a certain reflexive confidence. John C. Vennema and Rosie Benton turn in solid performances as a pair of rule-bending legal eagles on Jake’s team. Graham infuses Carl Lee with the requisite sense of dignity, and Arcelus makes you believe there might even be a law degree hanging in his dressing room. The authenticity extends to the smaller parts: With, for example, her studious attention to her machine — and the occasional meaningful sidelong glance — Trena Bolden Fields could be the fairly inscrutable stenographer in any courtroom in the country.

But even with the foundational acting blocks in place, “A Time to Kill” doesn’t percolate sufficiently to distinguish itself in a crowded genre. Backed by some New York money, Arena’s production is meant in part to be a test of whether the play can run elsewhere, possibly in a commercial setting. That seems to be a stretch. Unless, of course, some big stars could be lassoed. Hmm. I wonder what McConaughey, Bullock and Spacey are up to?

By Rupert Holmes, adapted from the novel by John Grisham. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Set, James Noone; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, York Kennedy; sound and music, Lindsay Jones; video, Jeff Sugg; fight choreography, David Leong; dialects, Lynn Watson. With Hugh Nees, Chike Johnson, Michael Marcan, Deborah Hazlett, Joe Isenberg, JC Hayward, Jeffrey M. Bender, Erin Davie, Jonathan Lincoln Fried. About 2 hours 40 minutes.

Making a case for putting a Grisham novel onstage

By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is John Grisham a theater guy?

Bestsellers, yes. “ The Pelican Brief ,” “The Runaway Jury,” “ The Client ” come to mind.

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.”