by Loren Noveck · October 26, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #15: Loren Noveck looks at A Time to Kill playing at the John Golden Theatre
In a very literal sense, every jury trial operates as a piece of theater, with the jury the audience and a cast of major players that includes attorneys on both sides, judges, witnesses, victims, and, of course, the accused. So I can see where the idea came from that an effective and suspenseful play could be made out of A Time to Kill, prolific legal thriller writer John Grisham’s first novel, a book whose climactic moments take place in a small-town Mississippi courtroom, at a murder trial that’s deeply embroiled with Southern racial politics. But the piece doesn’t ever really take on theatrical life; it feels mired in generic conventions, thinly developed characters, and far-too-familiar plot devices.
The play (by Rupert Holmes) explicitly addresses the audience as the jury. The lawyers speak directly to us; the judge admonishes us to disregard certain statements to which objections have been made; our judgment, compassion, sense of justice, and ethical compasses are invoked. We don’t, of course, get to deliberate on Carl Lee Hailey’s guilt or innocence; that part of the script has already been written—and, given that the piece has been both a perennially best-selling novel and a successful film, the odds are that much of the audience already knows how it turns out. (Even if you’re not familiar with this particular story, you are certainly familiar with the genre conventions that dictate it). Our “role” as the jury, then, is nothing more than a rhetorical device; a convention used for show.
Which was my big problem with A Time to Kill. The whole thing felt like a long string of calculated rhetorical devices, a construction compiled of every familiar trope from the legal thriller genre with a coloration of Southern racial politics circa 1980 thrown in: A case that seems unwinnable (Carl Lee Hailey, who is black, has shot and killed two white men on the courthouse steps in broad daylight: the men had just been arraigned for the brutal rape of Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter), with the death penalty awaiting the accused if he loses. A district attorney burnishing his public profile for a run at a larger political office (governor of Mississippi). Racially charged politics in a small Southern town. A crusading young white attorney, Jake Brigance, doing his best for his poor black client even though he’s not getting paid his regular fee. A plucky and spirited young female law clerk who’s smart as a whip and saves the day with her research ideas. A formerly crusading mentor who drank his career away but still has a few tricks up his sleeve. A ping-ponging roster of clever legal strategies that flip the import of witnesses’ testimonies and shock the jury. Even the rotating stage feels like an overly concrete metaphor for the shifting perspectives represented in a case—though it’s always clear we should be on the side of Carl Lee Hailey and Jake Brigance.
It’s true, some of these tropes were exemplified by the original Grisham novel, and are inherent to the story. But in this particular evocation, their use feels both dated and overfamiliar—dated because the piece neither transcends nor comments on its early-eighties setting (or the changed environment we see in the media, politics, etc. today), and overfamiliar because there’s so little deviation from or addition to the material we’ve seen before. And it’s also true that some of these conventions have become conventional precisely because they’re effective (as many courtroom dramas in many mediums, not least television, will show)—but they’re effective when paired with characters we care about.
Here, it feels like some of the specific choices made in the adaptation are meant to highlight the personal relationships as much as just the plot, but those relationships aren’t developed enough to stand that test. Instead, the choices often serve to narrow the story’s focus and strip away its larger sociopolitical context. Every piece of important non-courtroom action—not just the rape that kicks off the plot but the shooting, the Klan rallies and candlelight vigils that battle for the town square, the personal attacks on Jake Brigance’s and his family—take place offstage, at best evoked with video projections. Yet neither does the play set itself the structural challenge of confining itself, hothouse-like, to the courtroom—it includes not just other areas of the courthouse but Jake’s house (or porch) and office, in ways that diffuse the impact of what happens in the courtroom.
It’s frustrating, because the genuine issues that underline the story, and the perspective granted on those issues by the thirty years between the story’s setting and now, are well worth examining, if it were done in a theatrically compelling way: Does the justice system work, and for whom? How much does poisonous politics outside the courtroom inevitably filter in? “The system was working,” says the district attorney; the two alleged rapists were standing trial for what they did to Carl Lee Hailey’s daughter—though the death penalty on offer to Hailey wouldn’t have applied. It would be a much more interesting story if we were forced to confront, in the eyes of anyone more compelling than the smarmy district attorney, the prospect not just that Hailey might be put to death, but that that might be the fair and just outcome: he did what he felt he had to do, and who can blame him—but no matter how upstanding he is and no matter how hateful his victims, there is a price to be paid for vigilante justice. Or, if a deeper sense of context had really been conveyed, a subtler understanding of how the deck is stacked against Hailey and his family in the world outside the courtroom as well as in this room—we get lots of talk about those issues (most of it from the white attorneys, though from the black sheriff, who does his best to protect Carl Lee, as well), but we don’t see them played out, other than one Klansman being caught trying to attack Brigance.
Having said all of that, the play is well-engineered, if highly predictable, and if anything too well polished. Patrick Page relishes every chew of the scenery as district attorney Rufus Buckley. Both the female leads, Tonya Pinkins as Gwen Hailey, Carl Lee’s wife, and Ashley Williams, making her Broadway debut as law clerk Ellen Roark, bring nuance and (in Williams’s case) sly charm to their not-very-well-developed characters.
Still, when there are two, better-developed, richer, and more nuanced versions of this same story available in other mediums, it’s hard to recommend a theatrical version that hasn’t found a specifically theatrical, or a new, approach to the material.