Tag Archives: Jennifer Barnette

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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Wacky Magrath Sisters Still Deliver Southern-Fried Hilarity

Theater Review: Charlotte’s Theatre Crimes of the Heart

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s been a long time – nearly 15 years as far as I can tell – since I’ve spent an evening with Beth Henley’s lovable Mississippi Magrath Sisters. Looking in on them at Theatre Charlotte’s revival of CRIMES OF THE HEART affirms how vividly these deftly differentiated sibs stick in a theatergoer’s memory. First and foremost, you’ll remember kooky Babe, who doubts her own sanity after shooting her husband. Carefree temptress Meg seems to be the enviable paragon, looking down on her sibs as she waltzes back to the home sod with her Left Coast cool, but she’s beginning to doubt her own specialness now that her stab at stardom has come up empty. Lastly, that dear and dutiful doormat, Lenny, with her shriveled ovary and low self-esteem.

If the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner is beginning to show its age, I couldn’t tell it by the audience reaction at the Queens Road barn. The quirkiness and the comedy still work, but at a distance of 35 years, we can begin to appreciate what made CRIMES OF THE HEART so unique when it burst upon the scene.

Prize-winning plays and novels set in Dixie had invariably been about elegant, decayed, and tragic folk, following the Southern archetypes embraced by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee. Henley showed us once and for all that the eccentricities celebrated in You Can’t Take It With You could play just as well down in Mississippi – even when peppered with dark Arsenic and Old Lace humor.

Yet Henley’s comedy is notably more realistic than Kaufman’s crowdpleaser and both lighter and saner than Arsenic. That’s because the Magrath sisters are quirky rather than balmy – and because no significant antagonist appears onstage. When Cousin Chick drops by to chide or alarm the sisters, she is more of an irritant than an antagonist, her exits usually comical hasty retreats. She’s more like the recurring meanie from a TV sitcom than a force to reckoned with. The only real threat is State Senator Zachery Bottrelle, convalescing offstage somewhere with the bullet hole in his gut that Babe put there.

The Magrath Sisters came equipped with leavening agents that had usually been absent from American comedies: sorrows and regrets. You could easily presume that these were Southern heirlooms from Williams’ iconic dramas, but I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that this quality in Henley’s heroines may have had its roots in the novels of Jane Austen. Like Gentle Jane, Henley doesn’t presume to show us how men speak to each other when ladies aren’t in the room.

Directing for the first time at Theatre Charlotte, Christian Casper isn’t trying to reimagine our leading characters. Nor is set designer Chris Timmons trying to depict the Hazelhurst, Missisippi, home as any more luxurious or squalid than you might expect. We’re in a bland, slightly cheesy smalltown home, and its only discordant element is the dwarf fridge in the kitchen.

One of the ways that Henley binds her comedy together and makes it memorable is with the pair of ceremonies framing the action in celebration of Lenny’s 30th birthday. As you’ll see in the final moments, budgetary constraints are a bit more exposed than strictly necessary – cakewise and candlewise. But if Casper isn’t sufficiently savvy about the technical strategies to make the final scene truly shine, he certainly doesn’t mess up the opening.

Lenny’s clandestine celebrations get us off to a charming start with Meredith Westbrooks Owen as the pitiful birthday girl, repeatedly hunched over her wee little cupcake, singing to herself. Comedy – and the big news about the crime – burst in with Zendyn Duellman feasting on the role of Chick. Catty, gossipy, and fault-finding don’t completely describe Chick, for she’s also vulgar and trashy, richly deserving the Magraths’ scorn. Picking up a pair of pantyhose that Lenny has obligingly bought for her at the store, Chick begins squirming into them before our very eyes.

Henley meant Chick’s struggles to appear “slightly grotesque” in her stage directions, but Casper has Duellman going way beyond that. Like Lenny, we don’t care whether Chick remembers her cousin’s landmark birthday or not, but the same lapses from her younger sisters clearly hurt. Lenny’s clandestine candle-lighting lingers as an subliminal rebuke, underscoring her siblings’ tendency to be insensitive, neglectful, and self-absorbed. Beyond that, they expect Lenny to perform all the family’s mop-up chores, chiefly the onerous task of caring for bedridden Old Granddaddy.

From the moment that Jennifer Barnette enters as Meg, there are conflicting airs about her of regality and rebelliousness, elegance and uncouth. One minute, she’s lighting up a cigarette to vex Chick, the next she’s disconcerting Lenny by cracking pecans with her shoe. What a fascinating character arc for Barnette as she careens from Coca-Cola and stolen candy crèmes to bourbon and birthday cake. But of course, Barnette’s physical comedy – or even Chick’s, for that matter – will pale in comparison to Babe’s prodigies.

Emily Klingman performed them on opening night with a neurotic edge that eventually won me over. She repeatedly convinces us that Babe is the youngest, most immature person onstage, quite capable of obsessing morbidly over why her mom killed the family cat when she committed suicide. And hey, when a kitchen oven and a chandelier are among your props, you will get laughs.

Self-sacrifice is enough to win our affection for Lenny, but Henley calls upon two good men to help in sealing our fondness for her more self-centered sibs. Allen Eby is Doc Porter, surprisingly mellow for a man whom Meg left drenched and limping after a spectacular breakup during Hurricane Camille. On the other hand, Cole Long as dorky Barnette Lloyd, the legal eagle who is trying to keep Babe out of jail, seems uncannily capable of homing in on his client’s ditzy wavelength.