Monday, May 23, 2011

A Time To Kill at Arena Stage

Justice.   Vengeance.  The rule of law.  A 10-year-old girl is brutally raped, beaten, strangled and left for dead.   The laws of the state of Mississippi in the mid-1980's allow for a sentence that does not include life in prison or the death penalty unless the child succumbs to her horrific injuries.   Following the assailants' arraignment a public defender mentions to the father of the victim where the defendants will exit from the courtroom.   Acting on this knowledge, the father kills the men who have brutalized his daughter and shoots a court deputy leading to the deputy having his leg amputated.   The father is put on trial for his life and a community with simmering racial conflicts left over from the civil rights era of the not too distant past face a dilemma.  Do you convict and execute a vengeful father or do you find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

This is the, at the time of its writing, provocative plot of John Grisham's first novel, A Time To Kill, newly adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes.  The resulting drama is being presented by special arrangement with Daryl Roth in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater.   A definite work in progress there are riveting moments of compelling drama.   Yet the work has its flaws and needs some serious tweaking to fully reach its theatrical potential.

A Time To Kill feels dated, and this is a shame.  There are many examples of compelling courtroom plays set in the past that have themes that are still of relevance today.  Examples which come to mind include Inherit the Wind set in the 1920's and Gross Indecency:The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde set in the 1890's.   What makes this adaptation feel dated is some of its archetypical characters.  We have the white trash rapists complete with waist-long mullets, the smug District Attorney with political aspirations, the brash rich northern female law student who naturally has to try to seduce the very married defense attorney.   Some of this is fine and comes from the characters originally written on the page, but perhaps being so wedded to the characterizations of the source novel hurts the adaptation.

There are some terrific performances in this work.  The most compelling material comes in the courtroom.   The conversations between defense attorney, Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) and the defendant, Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham) are riveting and truly provide moral conflict for the audience.  Do we, the audience sympathize with a father, grieving with rage because he could not protect his daughter?  Of course, we do.  The real challenge is making us want to justify his decision to take matters into his own hands.   Because the murders occur so early in the judicial process there is no sense that justice for Carl Lee's daughter was not going to happen through the court of law.  Yet, we can also see the conflict in how Carl Lee is bring prosecuted.   Would a white father  be facing the death penalty in identical circumstances?  The play suggests he would not, but the drama on the stage isn't providing enough context for the audience to agree.

Characters we encounter outside the courtroom are less well developed.  Jake's wife, Carla Jane (Erin Davies) is pretty much a one-dimensional suffering wife.  We need to care more about her and their unseen 4-year-old daughter.   Jake's family is key to his defense of Carl Lee.  Flesh out the wife's role and consider adding the daughter to the play to provide a visual impact both for Jake's moral character and to provide empathy in the audience when their very lives are threatened during the course of the trial.

The alcoholic, disbarred mentor figure of Lucien Wilbanks (John C. Vennema)  is a bit of an enigma.  He's supposed to provide a sounding board for Jake and the voice for admitting that the trial is really a lost cause.  Yet, he also does shady and illegal things which undermine Jake's hard work.   Lucien is a completely unsympathetic character and needs some work to become an enhancement to the play rather than a hindrance.

As the northern gal attending law school at Ole Miss, the character of Ellen Roark (Rosie Benton) is stereotypically earnest.  Again, the character could use a bit more development.  Her attempted seduction of Jake feels tacked on and when the character is brutally attacked near the end of the trial it lacks the punch in the gut and shock value that it should.   Part of that is the limitations of the stage.  And part of that is the one character missing from this production.

That missing character is the townspeople.  They are represented through the use of video.  The stage is enveloped by multiple television screens on which news reports, marches by both the NAACP and the KKK and scenes from the 1980's at intermission to provide a sense of time are utilized.  First of all, The Thespian didn't need aerobics videos and old MTV promotions to tell me this is in the past.  The lack of cellular telephones, the mullets, and the fact that Carl Lee is facing the gas chamber rather than
lethal injection provide all the sense of time and place the audience requires.  Secondly, the television screens are so small that they seem cold and remote.  If one is sitting in either the balcony or the rear of the orchestra section they are difficult to view and don't make any emotional impact.  Only when used to represent a candlelight vigil with a single large flame in each screen does the concept work.  Far better in subsequent productions would be to find a way to make the presence of the masses the compelling character that they need to be, whether they are Klan members, the NAACP or even the all white jury which is now only a detached disembodied off stage voice.   

There are some terrific performances within the ensemble.  Evan Thompson is gruff and  humorous as Judge Omar Noose.  Chike Johnson is strength and dignity as the practical Sheriff Ozzie Walls.  Dion Graham provides a wonderful complexity in his portrayal of Carl Lee, grieving and raging, yet confident that he did the right thing and will be allowed to go free.  As the preening District Attorney, Brennan Brown is cocky and self-assured.  The most compelling scene in the play occurs when he takes the stand and goes one on one with Sebastian Arcelus' Jake.  Mr. Arcelus gives a bright and earnest performance as a man who empathizes with his client.

The use of a turn table in the set design by James Noone helps the play move smoothly.  The warm brown tones used in the set compliment the action.  Playwright Rupert Holmes has made a valiant first effort at Mr. Grisham's novel and Ethan McSweeny has capably directed this complicated work.   The Thespian looks forward to seeing how the play will evolve and hopes that her criticism is taken in the constructive manner in which it is intended.

A Time To Kill adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes and based on the book by John Grisham is being given its world premiere production in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage by special permission of Daryl Roth through June 19, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

The Thespian attended a preview performance of A Time To Kill.   She recognizes that changes may have occurred in the script and performances between the previews and opening night.

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