Tag Archives: Tim Hager

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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DCP’s Energetic “Fox in the Fairway” Is Nearly as Funny as a Sitcom

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Foxhunting and golf are both centuries old, so as a fancier of farces with keen sporting interests, I was intrigued when Ken Ludwig’s The Fox on the Fairway arrived in North Carolina during the summer of 2012. Ludwig is probably the most reliable farceur our nation has produced in the past 50 years, his Moon Over Buffalo arguably an even finer example than his more renowned Lend Me a Tenor. But after its NC premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse, followed shortly afterwards with another production at Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord, the presumably inevitable Charlotte premiere still hasn’t happened. So, in spite of my recent disappointment with Davidson Community PlayersSingin’ in the Rain, I yielded to the prospect of finally tracking down The Fox at Duke Family Performance Hall, the same place where DCP had remounted their Gene Kelly musical without either a rain shower or a sturdy lamppost.

Assuming that it wasn’t going to be subjected to undue stress, I was greatly encouraged when I first saw Clay James’ sturdy set design for the clubhouse at the Quail Valley Country Club, where all the action takes place. My optimism was immediately punctured when the fun was intended to begin. Each of the six characters we were about to see made a quick entrance, delivered a one-liner, and scooted back to the wings. Even if it were executed well, that’s a pretty cheesy way to open a show. While director Paige Johnston Thomas had apparently communicated the needs for energy and speed to her cast, the lesson of strength was either omitted or lost. I couldn’t really hear most of the words these players were blurting out, and the problem didn’t entirely disappear as the plot unfolded, though I detected improvement after intermission.

Justin is the newly hired assistant at Quail Valley, eager to please his new boss, Bingham, and even more eager to become engaged to Louise, who already works there. We soon find that Bingham has even more pressing concerns. He has been consistently losing to his condescending and underhanded rival, Dickie, in the annual tournament between his club and the Crouching Squirrel, Dickie’s club. Dickie gives Bingham 2-to-1 odds on the outcome, betting $200,000 against Bingham’s $100,000, but Bingham must also surrender his wife’s antique shop if Quail Valley loses. Before agreeing to this wager – which seems less lopsided the more you think about it – Dickie has already stolen Quail Valley’s best golfer away to the Crouching Squirrel team. And it seems that Dickie has also stolen the affections of Bingham’s nagging wife, Muriel. If that weren’t enough, Bingham’s future as president of Quail Valley hinges on the outcome of the tournament.

As it turns out, Bingham’s situation isn’t altogether hopeless. When Justin told him that he shot a 136 the last time he was out on a golf course, he neglected to mention that he had played two rounds. Then there’s his VP, Pamela, who knows her way around the technicalities of club rules well enough to quickly enroll Justin as a member, qualified to compete in the tournament. She also amply reciprocates the affection that Bingham was too shy to act upon back in the days when he was a pimply kid. Quail Valley thus has a representative who can conquer on the course if Justin can maintain his delicate equipoise. An eight-stroke lead could vanish in a heartbeat if some bad news rattles him. Now we know that is sure to happen, right? The reason, in this instance, is Louise’s inability to withhold the truth from her fiancé, even if the upshot is horrendous.

indexConsistency and logic prove wobbly throughout the evening. Bingham undergoes rigorous questioning when he adds Justin to his team without the customary waiting period, yet Dickie earns a free pass on taking away Quail Valley’s best golfer overnight. The whole idea of the clubs having competing teams is discarded in the blink of an eye – it’s Justin versus the traitorous Tramplemain, one-on-one. Dickie takes pains to wager on Muriel’s shop when he already has Muriel, and Louise manages to call off the engagement because Justin is justly mistrustful of her. About the only artful part of Ludwig’s plotting comes at the end, after he has detonated all his ludicrous catastrophes. Only then do we get the first inkling of what foxes have to do with anything that we’ve seen.

In this mating of unlikely disabilities, Tim Hager as the ultra-neurotic Justin was by far the more satisfying performer. With the onset of the bad news, Hager turned the club’s sofa into a hilarious prop as he unraveled all over it. Rachel Bammel was more than sufficiently juvenile as Louise, but her superabundant energy undid her whenever she spoke frantically. Hager wasn’t always entirely intelligible either, particularly in the climactic argument before intermission. Brian Rassler as Bingham and Abigail Pagán as Pamela had the right kind of hesitantly magnetic chemistry between them. I can readily forgive Pagán for being slightly younger than ideal for Pamela because she gave us a portrayal that was as vivid as Hager’s, and she was the one person on stage who consistently cared about reaching up to the mezzanine with her voice. By contrast, Rassler was always agreeably confused throughout Bingham’s many trials, his constant stress filled in the blanks when I missed the actual words.

Stuart and Leslie Jonap, as Dickie and Muriel, were equally gifted in portraying the villains, bestowing one dimension apiece to the swindling club prez and the nagging wife. Both Jonaps could also stretch to two dimensions – and turn up the heat – when the nasties invaded each other’s space. They were perfect examples of why blithe farces and community theatre companies are such a perfect fit. If only Ludwig had provided a better script, they might have been able to shine. Instead, they could only enhance the feeling that, six years after Ludwig’s play was originally staged in Washington, DC, we’re still watching a chaotic first draft of a farce. Everyone was trying so hard, but despite the heroics of Hager and Pagán, this brew never rose to the level of a TV sitcom – though I’m sure it’s as good as many that have perished as a pilot. As for the cheesy shtick that goes with the curtain calls, don’t blame Thomas. The director is only staging what’s on the page, where silliness occasionally devolves into stupidity.