Rupert Holmes’ stage adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” comes at a sweet moment for the author, whose belated sequel to that 1989 book, “Sycamore Row,” is being published this month. But a 25-year time lapse that works on the page doesn’t necessarily play on the stage, and there’s a distinctly dated feeling to the material — not the topic of Southern racism, but the youthful idealism of its hero. And despite a sturdy ensemble production helmed by Ethan McSweeny, this courtroom drama feels as if it were made for an earlier, less cynical era.
Technically, the play is, indeed, set in the early 1980s, when Grisham, then a recent law school grad, was a struggling young lawyer in the Southern town of Southaven, Miss., writing his first novel during court recesses. But it seems pretty clear that McSweeny (“The Best Man”) and his first-rate design team have gone for a timeless quality — no doubt to suggest that racism, in one ugly form or another, is always with us.
James Noone’s expressive set, made almost entirely of polished wood and sensuously curved like the staves of a barrel, has the mellow glow (provided by lighting designer Jeff Croiter) you’d expect to find in an old country courthouse in the Deep South. Whenever the walls fall away to make way for additional wooden set pieces that glide on and off the stage on a turntable, the versatile set functions just as well as jail cells and law offices and the viewing site for a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning.
Under the whirling blades of old-fashioned ceiling fans, a stern circuit court judge with the finger-pointing name of Omar Noose is presiding over a sensational case of murder. Fred Dalton Thompson, a fixture on TV’s best courtroom dramas, views this wise old bird with more subtlety, as someone both amused and appalled by the human spectacle he observes from the bench. Here, he’s faced with Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson, a hero for all seasons), an enraged African-American man who shot and killed the two redneck louts who raped and battered his 10-year-old daughter. Although the thesp asserts the father’s righteous anger with great dignity, a lawyer would have to be out of his mind to take up his defense.
The lunatic who fights for this thankless job is Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), an idealistic but also fiercely ambitious young defense lawyer Grisham has acknowledged as his alter-ego. A legit stage presence before he emerged as a face on “House of Cards,” the clean-cut Arcelus brings a personable quality to Jake. But this high-minded character, who received the same honorable treatment from Matthew McConaughey in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 movie, seems to float above the fray, not innocent enough for his time, not cynical enough for ours.
The characters and thesps who fare best are those who seem comfortable living in this hot, dusty, nowhere town — not the young law student (Ashley Williams) standing tall for truth, justice, and northern superiority, but the county sheriff (Chike Johnson, no messing with him) just doing his job, and, best of all, the wonderfully slick, unabashedly opportunistic district attorney played with evil brilliance by Patrick Page.
At issue is something that goes beyond the letter of the law — the refusal to look beyond the color of a man’s skin to judge his actions. If Jake is ever going to get Hailey acquitted, he’s got to make the jury see themselves in his shoes, not as a black man but as a father reacting as any father might. It’s not the murder of the two white rapists that calls out both the KKK and the NAACP in dueling demonstrations, but the demand — and the resistance to that demand — for color-blind justice.
If that sounds exactly like the irrational fury that makes Tea Party extremists resist anything and everything proposed by a black president … well, so it is. But taking the play out of its time is precisely the wrong way to make a case for its timeliness.
There’s an undeniable immediacy, to be sure, to the burning cross that the KKK has staked outside Jake’s burning house. But it doesn’t translate to the period. There’s no 1980s documentary reality to the unfocussed digital projections of Ku Klux Klan rallies and NAACP protest marches. No 1980s references in Jake’s law office. Even the unbecoming suits worn in and out of the courtroom are more generic work outfits than outdated fashions. If you can’t believe a character’s shoulder padding, how can you trust anything he says?