‘A Time to Kill’ Theater Review: John Grisham’s Tale Should Have Settled Out of Court

When you strip Grisham’s panoramic tale of racism and injustice down to a courtroom drama, there really isn’t much of a trial at the heart of it

The word “quaint” is not one you’d use to describe either John Grisham’s first novel or Joel Schumacher’s 1996 screen version of “A Time to Kill.” But quaint is very much what you get on the Broadway stage with Rupert Holmes’ adaptation, which opened Sunday at the Golden Theater.

Quaint is not necessarily a bad thing, and the show’s producers promise as much with the subhead: “A new courtroom drama.”

When is the last time Broadway hosted a courtroom drama, new or old? The genre used to be a theater staple – Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16,” Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” – but TV shows like “Perry Mason” and “Matlock” sent it to Death Row long ago.  “A Time to Kill” gives the genre a reprieve. Will Broadway audiences give it life?

In addition to that subhead, the producers of “A Time to Kill” have lavished Holmes’ play with an old-fashioned cast of players, numbering no fewer than 17 actors. Too bad that huge cast doesn’t have a vintage story to tell, because when you strip Grisham’s panoramic tale of racism and injustice in a small Mississippi city down to a courtroom drama, there really isn’t much of a trial at the heart of it.

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Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) shoots and kills two rednecks (Lee Sellars and Dashiell Eaves) who’ve raped his 10-year-old daughter, and in the melee of bullets, Hailey accidentally maims a deputy (Jeffrey M. Bender). In this stage version, the trial doesn’t hinge on that deputy’s testimony but rather two opposing shrinks who argue about Hailey’s sanity.

Also read: ‘A Time to Kill’ Broadway Stars: Grisham’s Tale of Racial Disharmony Resonates in Trayvon Martin Era

The big shocker – actually, it’s only a couple of mild eyebrow-raisers for anyone who has avoided the novel and movie – is that both doctors’ reputations come under scrutiny. The Marx Brothers made fun of the insanity clause back in “A Night at the Opera,” and it never has been able to regain its dramatic punch.

Also, in Holmes’ play, the real drama always seems to be taking place offstage, where, we are told, the respective supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP are fighting it out

Holmes improves on Grisham’s writing a bit. Theatergoers are spared things like the novel’s “screaming alarm clock” that heroic attorney Jack Brigance (played by Sebastian Arcelus on stage) “killed … with a quick and violent slap.” But Holmes also eliminates most of the small-town Mississippi politics and intrigue – the jury selection in the novel remains riveting – that turned “A Time to Kill” into a surprise bestseller.

Schumacher compensated onscreen by casting relative newcomers (Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, Ashley Judd) on the cusp of major stardom and giving them the MGM treatment despite the movies’ pious superiority complex in the face of its racist cracker characters.

Also read: ‘The Glass Menagerie’ Theater Review: Zachary Quinto Goes for the Jugular

Under Ethan McSweeny’s direction at the Golden Theater, only John Douglas Thompson, Tonya Pinkins as his supportive wife and Patrick Page as the smarmy prosecutor (the Spacey role) are able to tweak this character dross into star turns. In his Broadway debut, Tom Skerritt keeps entering and exiting like a lost ghost in white hair and designer David C. Wollards’s equally bleached-out linens.

He’s an effective, aristocratic drunk who acts as Brigance’s mentor, the disbarred Lucien Wilbanks. But the character does little to further the plot, and the greater mystery is why Holmes kept Wilbanks but deprived the maimed deputy DeWayne Looney his big scene in court.

A fun bit of casting has Fred Dalton Thompson playing the judge. It’s fun for about a minute, and then the ex-senator and former star of “Law & Order” proves as stimulating on stage as he was in the 2008 Republican primary. His judge’s throne keeps spinning round and round on designer James Noone’s unit set, but regardless of how many times it rotates on that roundtable, the judge’s perch tends to end up on stage where it started.

Holmes’ play is like that: It spins a tale that doesn’t cover much territory.