Much of the Ambiance Is Trimmed from “A Time to Kill,” but the Mississippi Murder Trial Still Sizzles

Review:  A Time to Kill

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rupert Holmes has built a distinguished theatre career – and carved out his own special niche – by crafting mysteries for the Broadway stage. His Accomplice won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America when it played on Broadway in 1990, and after his Thumbs premiered successfully in Charlotte, it seemed Broadway-bound in 2001. Holmes’ most unique accomplishments are his two mystery musicals, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adapted from Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and Curtains, a Holmes original. So it’s not at all surprising that Holmes would be the first playwright to adapt a John Grisham bestseller for the stage when he brought A Time to Kill to the Great White Way in 2013. As the current Theatre Charlotte production demonstrates, adapting Grisham’s first novel for the stage was a tall order.

Admitting that film would be a more comfortable medium for this story, director Dave Blamy conspires with set and lighting designer Chis Timmons to wedge in some clips, prefacing the action with evocations of a horrific rape of a 10-year-old girl and, deep in the story, flashing the handiwork of the Ku Klux Klan on the darkened upstage wall. From the outset, you can presume that Timmons’ design for Judge Edwin Noose’s Mississippi courtroom isn’t going anywhere. It is so sturdy and stately that you may be tempted to rise when the judge enters to launch Act 1. But Timmons manages to swivel the entire courtroom 90° during intermission, adding a sidecar to the judge’s bench that serves – somewhat shakily – as a witness box. When we adjourned to the judge’s chamber, other parts of the courthouse, or defense attorney Jake Brigance’s home, there were discreet furniture shifts while the lights were dimmed. They worked well enough.

Unfortunately, Grisham’s canvas is larger. Though we watch Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard confess to the rape and attempted murder of little Tonya in vivid Mississippi detail, we never see her father, Carl Lee Hailey, taking vengeance upon these perverts. Thanks to Christy Edney Lancaster’s sound design, we can hear the chants of protesters outside the courthouse when Carl Lee goes on trial for murder, but we cannot see the mob’s fury. When hostilities break out between black supporters of the defendant and KKK racists, we’re shielded from the riot, and when the National Guard moved in… I wasn’t sure that was even mentioned in the script.

Clocking in at a hefty 2:17, plus a 20-minute intermission, the production won’t seem skimpy at all. Instead of any prolonged attention to the KKK, Holmes takes us more intently into Jake’s defense efforts behind the scenes, bringing extra emphasis to whip-smart legal assistant Ellen Roark, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks, and the pillar of the defense’s case, Dr. W.T. Bass. The psychiatrist is recruited for the purpose of confirming that Carl Lee committed the double murder while suffering from temporary insanity, but it quickly became apparent that Wilbanks had made Bass’s acquaintance in a barroom during one of his frequent sprees. For better and worse, suspense and thrills now rest on the outcome of the trial, not on the survival of Carl and Jake in the face of KKK mob mentality. We’re also called upon to hate district attorney Rufus Buckley a little bit more, for his smarmy courtroom confidence and his undisguised political ambitions.

A slick, relatively bloodless package like this would have worked better if it were performed more slickly. Blamy pushes in that direction, but Grisham’s main characters are defined by their back-stories, and their development is further hampered by the formality that legal proceedings – arraignments, pleadings, motions, and trials – impose on dialogue. All combined, the length, formality, and pervasive legalese of A Time to Kill may account for the fact that actors were stumbling over their lines more frequently on this opening night than at any show I can remember at Theatre Charlotte.

Best at handling it was Jim Greenwood, who managed to add a bumbling element to Judge Noose’s crusty old persona. The opposing attorneys, both superbly cast, didn’t break character when struggling for their next phrases, but I could detect definite cracks. Tasked with sustaining a villainous patina, Conrad Harvey was more afflicted by these lapses as the DA, but all was well when he hopped back onto the rails and he flashed his Trumpian smile to the jury. Wonderfully loathsome. Costume designer Chelsea Retalic probably had Atticus Finch in mind when she drew up Jake’s courtroom attire for Tim Hager and the analogy was often apt when Hager grew simply eloquent. But he’d be better off drawing upon Jake’s fallibility when he falters.

Hager was at his best when Jake in maneuvering behind the scenes. Wheeling and dealing are not his style. Steadfast in his beliefs, Hager seemed to get that Jake wasn’t as comfortable in his skin as those surrounding him. As the brainy, beautiful, and ambitious Roark, Jennifer Barnette knew exactly what the legal assistant wants from her gig with Jake and why she finds him attractive. Both Tom Schrachta as Lucien and Rick Taylor as Dr. Bass projected their dissoluteness without too much exaggeration – but more than enough to merit Jake’s alarm – and both of them get tasty opportunities to sober up. Neither of them missed the comical lagniappe that came with their changes.

With so much of the Mississippi ambiance trimmed away like so much gristle, it was a godsend that the black players were all so right. Ronald Jenkins registered Sheriff Ozzie Walls’ conflicted loyalties beautifully, as committed to protecting Carl Lee and seeing that justice is done as he was to keeping his prisoner in custody. As a vengeful father, thoughtless husband, and a somewhat immature man, Jonathan Caldwell had a lot of different feelings to navigate as Carl Lee, from savage rage to sheepish regret, but he wisely stayed steadfast in his belief that murdering those two bragging racists was the right thing. Yet there was deep understanding in Tracie Frank’s portrayal of Gwen Hailey, Carl’s wife. Carl defies her when he chooses Jake to defend him instead of the NAACP, who are willing to come in and do it without a fee. Frank was out there alone to give Carl Lee’s defiance substantial weight. Without Frank’s steely strength, Jake’s victory – and Carl Lee’s vindication for choosing him – wouldn’t have been as sweet. Her quiet acknowledgement seals the verdict.

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