The wheels of justice operate at breakneck speed in “A Time to Kill,” a new stage adaptation of John Grisham’s 1989 novel that examines whether it’s ever permissible to take the law into one’s hands. An argument for the affirmative is wrapped around this compelling but now hackneyed courtroom drama about law, politics and racism in the Deep South.
Arena Stage’s record of nurturing works for Broadway helped inspire New York producer Daryl Roth to bring the D.C. theater this project, the first adaptation of Grisham’s first novel since the 1996 Warner Bros. film. Roth commissioned writer Rupert Holmes to adapt the book, provided supplemental funding, and helped Arena a.d. Molly Smith assemble a mostly New York cast led by director Ethan McSweeny (“Gore Vidal’s The Best Man”).
Holmes has turned the novel into a courtroom-dominated exercise and appointed the audience as jurors. Their job: to decide whether a bereaved father was justified in executing two men who brutally raped his 12-year-old daughter and left her for dead. In Grisham’s town of Clanton, Miss., where the Klan freely intimidates, father and daughter are black while the confessed perpetrators, and the jury, are white.
Many Grisham fans will be pleased with Holmes’ succinct adaptation of a beloved chestnut. As courtroom dramas go, it builds the requisite blend of suspense and characterization around a classic American theme. But for auds hoping for a lofty or insightful debate about racial issues, this isn’t the play. Each of its principal characters is tethered to a rigid stereotype of southern redneck, liberal do-gooder, two-faced politician or pushy female, among others.
McSweeney directs with his foot firmly on the accelerator, especially in the early proceedings as gruesome plot elements are dispensed with. It gets downright comical during the introduction of annoyingly smug legal intern Rosie Benton, played to the opportunistic hilt by Ellen Roark, who blitzes through her academic credentials as if she were reciting disclaimers on a drug commercial.
Those shortcomings notwithstanding, “Kill” is agreeably acted by principals that include Dion Graham as the anguished father, Sebastian Arcelus as the dedicated defense attorney and Brennan Brown as the politically minded prosecutor. Evan Thompson offers the right touch of sarcastic jurisprudence to the sleepy town’s local judge, who apparently bides his time waiting for cases to hear.