Sunday, October 20, 2013
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
The prodigious author John Grisham has entered a third medium to recycle his work with Rupert Holmes' adaptation of his first novel "A Time to Kill" now running on the Great White Way. I've been a Grisham fan for many years, getting hooked first with "The Firm," which led me to "A Time..." and I've read almost everything he's written since then, good, bad or indifferent. I like that his work is an easy read, sometimes a little pulpy, but generally perfect for an afternoon on the beach or a couple of hours on an airplane.
Wisely, Mr. Grisham has turned over the adaptation of his work to someone who has strong experience in writing for the theatre. He gets off scott-free if the effort tanks, or gets all the glory for creating the source if the play becomes a hit. Don't forget, he's a lawyer at heart and understands how to balance the risk/reward equation.
For him, that's a good thing.
This tepid attempt at a pot-boiler follows Mr. Grisham's plot, but fails to capture the high stakes of a white Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) defending Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) a black man for the murder of two white men who brutally and viciously raped and beat his daughter in the 1980s. A sheriff's deputy was also injured in the cross-fire, an unintended casualty in this act of vengeance.
The cast is widely uneven with Patrick Page giving the strongest performance as the slick and greasy prosecuting attorney coming in from the state capitol to helm the state's case. Mr. Arcelus has his moments, but is serviceable at best.
It seems the producers have also hedged their bets by casting Fred Thompson and Tom Skerritt in supporting roles. At the preview performance I saw, neither had adjusted their acting for stage, instead giving rather internal performances as though a camera were taking close-ups. Mr. Thompson rushed his lines to the point of being unintelligible, where Mr. Skerritt underplayed even the most dramatic moments. It's a shame, given the inherent theatricality of their roles as the trial judge and Jake's disgraced former law partner. Ashley Williams as Ellen Roark, the senior law student looking to jump start her own career with a high-profile case, also arrives with an extensive TV resume and fails to find the balance between her character's intelligence and lack of experience. She comes across as much too old and jaded, ignoring the southern blue-blood heritage of Ellen's Ole Miss education.
Director Ethan McSweeny struggles to morph a period piece into contemporary relevance, borrowing noisy musical transitions from British political works like Enron and more recently, The Machine. An over-worked set by James Noone with a completely superfluous turntable might be the cause. Mr. Noone also undermines what should have been a dignified courtroom setting with a barn-like structure - talk about silk purse. Costumer David C. Woolard also misfires with a significant lack of seersucker, only giving that to the character least likely to wear it during the Reagan-era.
In the end, I still don't understand why this story needed to be told onstage. Mr. Grisham's writing lends itself much better to film and even then, there are better choices to adapt his work to the stage. A Time to Kill is not a bad book. It's also not another To Kill a Mockingbird, missing its inherent theatricality of time and place to work well in a live performance.