A Time to Kill on Broadway

When my past as a college theater critic collides with my present as a litigator, a happy-stance happens on Broadway in “A Time to Kill,” Rupert Holmes’ dramatic adaptation of John Grisham’s first legal thriller.  I am leaving the multiple ethical issues presented to the play’s protagonist, attorney Jake Brigance, to my legal musings over at the NYS Bar Association blog for the Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law section.

Here, for Lady Litigator, I am merely a fan, a theater-goer who has not enjoyed a legit production in a long time and was quite happy to spend 2.5 hours with “A Time to Kill.”  For fans who did not read the 1989 book or see the 1996 film starring Matt McConaughey & Sandra Bullock, this staged production has some twists absent from both the book and the film and force the observer to perhaps think in a new way.

Sure racial bigotry still exists, especially in the deep south and this story takes place in race torn Mississippi, where a young black girl is viciously and brutally assaulted, raped and hung by two drugged out white men.  Her distraught father, Carl Lee Hailey, retaliates by gunning them down inside the courthouse and political and racial upheaval ensures.

The ensemble cast is brilliantly led by Sebastian Arcelus as Brigance and John Douglas Thompson as Carl Lee with veteran “legal” actor Fred Thompson (“Law & Order”) as the judge and Tom Skerritt as drunken, disbarred  attorney Lucien Wilbanks, a mentor to Brigance.

The story has a timeless quality thanks to the directing of Ethan McSweeney and the wonderful sets of James Noone.  The courtroom’s turntable stage is front and center but scenes change effortlessly as prison cells and living rooms are moved in and out with suspended walls.  However, this story takes place as much inside as outside the courtroom where the worlds of the KKK and the NAACP collide in protests in this small southern town.  The noise, the rancor, the visual imagery are all highlighted on multi-media screens suspended to the rear of the courtroom, out of view from the proceedings where justice is supposed to be blind.  But is it?

While those around Brigance try to make this case all about race, from Carl Lee’s plot and ponderings about a white jury to the politically ambitious prosecutor’s insistence that color does not play a role in HIS courtroom, the idealistic, young attorney focus on the humanity of the case.  He makes the predominantly white jury see the facts through the eyes of a father.  How would they react if this happened to their daughter, granddaughter, niece?  In the words of the defendant, “God had a son.  He didn’t have a daughter.”