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Paulanne Simmons

There’s Nothing Like an Old-Fashioned
Courtroom Drama

A Time to Kill
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
Opened Oct 20, 2013
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 20, 2013

Photo by Jim Cox.

Those who are addicted to reality and unable to suspend disbelief, and those who have already read Grisham’s novel, may find Rupert Homes’ stage adaptation of A Time to Kill somewhat lacking. But for people like me who have a special love for courtroom dramas and have never read the novel, this fast-paced, well-acted drama, equally well directed by Ethan McSweeny will do just fine.

Set in Mississippi during the 1980s, A Time to Kill is placed in motion when Carl Lee Hailey (the excellent John Douglas Thompson) kills the two men who raped his daughter because they were high on drugs, the women they’d hope would accommodate them were unwilling, and she was innocent and unprotected.

District Attorney Rufus R. Buckley (Patrick Page), who is seeking any publicity that will help him become governor, quickly shifts his focus from the rapists to their murderer. While Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), a young, ambitious and idealistic attorney is determined to keep Hailey out of the gas chamber.

Brigance is assisted in the effort, somewhat against his better judgment, by Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams), an intern with southern roots and a northern education, and his former mentor, the alcoholic Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt), again against his better judgment.

The drama climaxes in the courtroom, where Buckley and Brigance come head to head, with plenty of clever maneuvers, brilliant speeches and various objections, sustained and overruled. Buckley even takes the stand at one point.

Although A Time to Kill takes place primarily in the courthouse, complete with polished wood and slowly moving ceiling fans, set designer James Noone does give the audience glimpses of the protests and violence taking place on the street. There’s even a highly effective burning cross.

The emotional core of the drama is personified in Hailey and his wife, Gwen (Tonya Pinkins). However, while Hailey never waivers in his decisions and faith, Pinkins portrays Gwen as less assured and more vulnerable. Her performance is at times heart-wrenching. Skerritt supplies most of the comic relief and seems to revel in the role of a crusty old man with a good heart.

It’s easy to doubt whether these events might have taken place in the 80s, even in Mississippi, and it’s also easy to point out that just about every character in A Time to Kill resembles another character one has seen before, several times. But somehow the result seems to be greater than the sum of the clichés.

A Time to Kill is good, old-fashioned courtroom drama, riveting and emotionally satisfying.



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