Tag Archives: Jonathan Caldwell

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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Fire, Fury, and Painful Memories Drive Wilson’s “Jitney”

Review: Jitney

 

By Perry Tannenbaum

Allowing for inflation and cost-of-living increases since 1977, fares at Becker’s Car Service seem to be fiercely competitive – so competitive that the five cab drivers at the core of August Wilson’s Jitney all seem to be barely scraping by. The drivers’ lounge, adorned with a decaying Ali-Frazier poster, has a ramshackle look to it with a dust-colored couch held together by generous swaths of duct tape.

We never see whether the drivers’ jitneys (slang for gypsy cabs) are in any better repair than this crumbling HQ, but the idea seeps in that the struggling black customers in the Hill district of Pittsburgh are in no position to press the point. Early on in this fine BNS Productions effort at Spirit Square, director Corlis Hayes pushes the pace hard enough for us to assume that we’re in the midst of an urban rush hour.

These are men in a hurry – who aren’t necessarily getting anywhere. Pretty much the same can be said for Wilson’s story until Becker himself arrives. He takes off a fedora hat and lays down a satchel, signs that he’s better off than his employees, but he takes turns answering the phone – a pay phone – and giving rides. Still not rushing his story along in his flurry of driver entrances and exits, Wilson has Becker announcing two key strands of the plot.

After keeping it from his drivers a little longer than he should, Becker tells Doub, his steadiest driver, that the city has earmarked the property for urban renewal. The Car Service office will be boarded up in a matter of weeks. If that weren’t enough upheaval, Becker’s son Booster is getting out of the slammer after serving 20 years for murder. Becker never visited his son even once during his incarceration, so this does not figure to be a joyous reunion.

If you’ve seen Wilson’s Fences recently, you will likely find echoes of Troy Maxson in the elder Becker’s sternness and stubbornness. If anything, the father-son chemistry will prove even more important here. But Becker is more of a people person, as he would need to be in running a business, and he has a few soft spots beneath his tough hide.

We see one of those when he gives Fielding, a former tailor who has destroyed himself with drink, yet one more chance to come back on the job and straighten himself out. Becker also shows strength and courage defusing a heated confrontation between Vietnam War vet Youngblood and the gossipy Turnbo, who has meddled in the younger driver’s domestic affairs, frustrated at not stealing his girlfriend Rena.

There’s a fascinating range of personalities and back stories among the core quintet of drivers plus the boss’s son. Baring their souls – and their motives – everybody seems to get a monologue. Nor do Hayes and lighting designer Tony Wright veil the kinship between these monologues and long, lyrical jazz solos. Hayes usually directs her actors to blow their solos straight into the Duke Energy Theater audience, while Wright intensifies the light where they deliver.

During the passionate showdown between Youngblood and Rena, where both have been right and wrong, each of the combatants has a heartfelt monologue. Yet Wilson had even more pure audacity in a casual scene where the often-comical Fielding meets the tightly-wound Booster. The playwright brashly showcases his virtuosity by unleashing two consecutive monologues, one by the rueful Fielding recalling his better days when he tailored suits for Billy Eckstein and Count Basie, followed by Booster’s recollection of his first hard lesson in life when, as a child, he had a vivid dream about riding a red bicycle.

With so many monologues so evenly distributed, you need a cast that’s strong, deep and – when Wilson digresses – engaging. Hayes and producer Rory D. Sheriff have definitely produced with this ensemble. Though he isn’t given free enough rein in the opening scene as Fielding (we should be sure that the $4 he borrows from Doub will go toward refilling his whisky flask), Gerard Hazleton shoulders enough of the drunkard’s comedy without letting us lose our warm feelings toward him.

There’s a little more comedy squeezed from the gossipy Turnbo by Tim Bradley, probably because his sleaziness and nosiness are so outrageous, but he also forces us to take him seriously when he goes ballistic on Youngblood. More on the periphery, James Lee Walker II gives the local numbers runner, Shealy, a dandified flair though we still empathize with his romantic difficulties. On the other end of the cunning spectrum, Danius Jones makes Philmore a singularly quirky and clueless passenger, attaining full dopiness only when he returns in his bellhop uniform.

Partly because they subtly echo the central father-son relationship, Doub and Youngblood are closer to the heart of Wilson’s drama than the men who garnish it with comedy or the colorful aspects of city life. Both of them are war vets, but Youngblood – if not as senseless as Turnbo makes him out to be – has been slightly warped by his Vietnam experience. Doub, traumatized and shaken to his core in the Korean War, has retained a stone-cold outlook beneath his cheery, avuncular demeanor.

With Keith Logan delivering Doub’s Korea monologue, it becomes the warmest moment of the evening, transcending its payload of advice for Youngblood. In its tacit acknowledgement of Youngblood’s essential goodness – and his confidence in Youngblood’s ability to benefit from sound advice – he’s a perfect model of the parenting skills that Becker lacks. Ironically, there are times when Logan’s acting is similarly exemplary for Jonathan Caldwell. While Caldwell brilliantly projects Youngblood’s immaturity and confusion, he could use a tip or two on either quickening his cue pickup or timing his delayed reactions.

Caldwell’s occasional awkwardness may slightly mar Youngblood’s scenes with Doub and Turnbo, but it meshes very well with Juanita Green in the confrontations with Rena. Hayes decrees a more conciliatory rapport between the lovers when we last see them than you might find in other productions, but Green keeps this becalmed closure from becoming saccharine.

Although Becker isn’t quite the perfect boss, he deals empathetically with his drivers, so there needs to be a powerful reason why he is so cold and cruel toward his son. John W. Price provides it indelibly in the most electrifying monologue of the night. The fire and thunder from Price as he’s excoriating Booster are unlike anything I’ve seen or heard from him before, fueled by white-hot fury and pain.

It’s an earthquake, and you can see Jermaine Gamble as Booster trembling amid the seismic shock. We get the idea from Gamble that Becker’s boy has grown up, hardened by prison, a fully formed yet scarred individual. Booster does fire back at his dad, but Gamble acutely calibrates the restraint and the hope that are wrapped into his resentments, almost like he’s still an adolescent in his father’s presence. It’s simply respect – all the more moving for its futility.

Within the space of two weeks, we’ve heard from two playwrights, Jeff Talbott in The Submission and August Wilson in Jitney, who have ignited their peak moments with the N-word. This one is far more unexpected – and shattering.