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Aisle View: Time to Kill on Stage

Oct 21, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The final 20 minutes of the courtroom drama A Time to Kill provide crackling theatrics, as idealistic folksy small-town lawyer Sebastian Arcelus goes up against slimily wily district attorney (and governor-nominee) Patrick Page. Unfortunately, those 20 minutes of high drama come after two full hours of lumbering storytelling. Since this is Mississippi, the D.A. is bigoted and the Klan is a-marchin' in; since this is a formulaic tale, from the 1989 novel by John Grisham, the good guy wins and the good ol' boys lose.

Lumbering, I suppose, is the accurate word. The action is divided into eighteen scenes, taking place in and around the courthouse in fictional Clanton, MS. There's nothing wrong with dividing your play into eighteen scenes, of course, but there is a problem if you build your production on a clunky turntable. They talk, they stop, you watch in the dimmed light as the furniture on the turntable turns, and then they start again. And again and again. Watching A Time to Kill at the Golden is like watching a video with an insufficient Internet connection: you get a minute or two, stop while you wait for it to buffer, watch another small chunk and wait some more.

This is no way to spin a thriller. A Time to Kill -- Grisham's first novel -- made its way to Hollywood in 1996. I suppose it was a real page-turner in its original form, and a tense popcorn-muncher on-screen. It has been adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes, who remains best-known for his 1985 murder mystery musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His subsequent Broadway career has been spotty, including two non-musical mystery plays -- Accomplice and Solitary Confinement -- which both quickly folded.

The heaviness of the affair is typified by the biggest piece of scenery, the raised judge's podium with attached witness box. When they're in the courtroom, it's the judge's domain. When they are outside the courtroom, it's a mountainous hulk sitting upstage like an iceberg in the shadowy night. The plot of A Time to Kill builds to a full-scale Klan rally and a massive house-burning. These must have been fiery on-screen; at the Golden, we hear them happen but don't see them. The Klan is represented by offstage voices and a choppy film projected on the curved back wall of the set; the grand fire is signified by a burning cross above. When we move back into court, the furniture on the turntable is literally smoking from the heat -- although the offstage fire doesn't take place near the courthouse.

Arcelus, best known locally for his ultra-charming turn in the 2010 musical Elf, does satisfactorily as the noble lawyer (although we've seen assorted iconic movie stars play memorable variations of this character). John Douglas Thompson does well as the not-so-convincingly written father who commits a double murder to avenge the rape of his daughter. As is typical of the adaptation, we hear the murder take place just offstage but don't see it. Patrick Page gets the showy role of the district attorney; theatergoers who saw him in Spider-Man will not be surprised by his proclivity to provide high entertainment simply by chomping on the scenery. They are supported by newcomer Ashley Williams, helpful as the college law student who pitches in for the good guys but does not quite seduce our hero.

The biggest "names" in the cast of 14 are less prominent. Hollywood's Tom Skerritt plays an alcoholic, disbarred lawyer -- is there any other kind? -- and Fred Dalton Thompson is the judge. (Thompson first attracted attention as the Republican counsel during the Watergate hearings, where his innocent questioning uncovered the existence of the fatal-to-Nixon White House Tapes. In 1994 he replaced Al Gore as Senator from Tennessee, and later moved on to an acting career.) Skerritt and Thompson both are occasionally unintelligible, which is presumably the fault of the sound design. Also on hand is Tony Award-winner Tonya Pinkins, an actress of immense power who is barely utilized here.

The lumbering nature of the adaptation and lack of on-stage drama -- until the final 20 minutes -- can be placed in the laps of adapter Holmes and director Ethan McSweeney. McSweeney directed a 2011 tryout of A Time to Kill at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Arcelus and the set designer were retained, with just about everyone else replaced for Broadway. What most needed replacing, though, was the nondramatic dramaturgy. But then, A Time to Kill is not nearly To Kill a Mockingbird.