It was risky producing Rupert Holmes’ adaptation of John Grisham’s 1989 best selling novel A TIME TO KILL without some heavy duty stars in roles made famous on the screen (1996) by Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland and Sandra Bullock.
But not as risky as it was for the young and ambitious attorney Jake Brigance (a less than charismatic but adequate Sebastian Arcelus) to take on the case of Carl Lee Hailey (a powerful John Douglas Thompson) in 1980 Mississippi who admittedly shot and killed two men outside of the Courthouse. Two drugged out red neck monsters who viciously raped his innocent ten year old daughter, breaking her jaw with the intention of hanging her.
With a racial divide as wide as the Mississippi Jake takes on the case and has to deal with a formidable and sleazy D.A. Rufus R. Buckley (an excellent Patrick Page) who is aided by his lush of a mentor Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt) and an ambitious, astute and attractive young intern, Ellen Roark (a too contemporary Ashley Williams).
Carl Lee has faith. Enough faith in Jake that he can get him off despite his admitting to the crime. He is convinced that what he did was the right thing to do and will not defer even though his wife Gwen (Tonya Pinkins) has her doubts and the NAACP offers to help him for free.
What’s missing is the undeniable lyrical prose of Mr. Grisham. The story is there. And a damn good story it is, with some insights into the inequalities of the judicial system in Mississippi circa 1980 and all its biases.
But this is neither a novel nor a movie. And director Ethan McSweeny who did a brilliant job with THE BEST MAN fails to get his uneven ensemble of actors to convey the story with a theatrical force that it should have. It comes across stilted at times.
Especially in Act I where we plod along through the crime, the arraignment, the bail hearing, an amusing fee negotiation and the decision to plead insanity. Even with the aid of some great projections (Jeff Sugg) and a rotating set by James Noone that is the true star of the production it feels somewhat prolonged and unsatisfying.
It is not until Act II where things finally take off. As the set revolves we become the jury and we do not miss a single word as they present the case to us directly. The trial’s the thing as prosecutor and defense both have their own expert psychiatrists Dr. Bass (John Procaccino) for the defense and Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver (Lee Sellars) for the prosecution on the stand that leads to some unexpected surprises presided over by Judge Noose (Fred Dalton Thompson).
A TIME TO KILL tries its best to garner excitement but is only semi-successful with its straightforward telling of the story leaving us with the question – If you were the father of a ten year old girl who was viciously raped what would you do?
At the Golden Theatre. www.atimetokillonbroadway.com
Photos: Carol Rosegg
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