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

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?

A Time to Kill

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. Through June 19 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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