Review: A TIME TO KILL Explores Courtroom Racism and Justifiable Murder
There are those who will tell you that Michael Dukakis, an adamant opponent of the death penalty, lost the 1988 presidential election when Bernard Shaw asked him in a nationally televised debate if he would reconsider his stance if someone raped and murdered his wife, Kitty Dukakis.The candidate's calm and evenly-tempered defense of his opposition to the practice was interpreted by many to be unfeeling; irrationally intellectualizing a highly emotional situation.
The fact that a good many rational, sensitive humans would readily come to the defense of others who would appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner to punish someone who would do such a thing to a loved one is the empathetic pull behind Rupert Holmes' stage adaptation of John Grisham's courtroom novel, A Time To Kill; the story of a father who commits a pre-meditated act of murder against two men accused of beating and raping his 10-year-old daughter, gunning them down as they are handcuffed and defenseless while being escorted from the courtroom where they've just been arraigned.
That action alone would make it a provocative story worthy of debate, but, despite a character's early insistence that the case is about murder and not about race, the fact that the father is a black man living in a small, predominantly white town in early 1980s Mississippi and the accused rapists (legally innocent because they were never proven guilty in court) are white, turns this more into a story of trying to get a fair trial for a black man in America; absolutely a worthy subject for dramatization, but presented here as little more than a battle of wits between equally corrupt "good guys" and "bad guys" who eventually wind up comparing scripture quotes to make their cases.
The evening carries the assumption that the audience will unquestionably side with the father, so instead of evenly debating if he had the right to do what he did, the play is about doing whatever is needed to combat the racism embedded into the system and have him found not guilty.
Though it's abundantly clear from the beginning that the slimy-looking Billy Ray Cobb (Lee Sellars) and Pete Willard (Dashiell Eaves) are undeniably and unrepentantly guilty of the horrific act, the best argument for the defense of their murderer is the performance of John Douglas Thompson, one of those extraordinary stage actors that the general public has mostly never heard of. As the father, Carl Lee Hailey, he is a loving, spiritual man who, without anger, truly believes in the righteous of his actions. But you can also sense that his quiet nature is also a survival strategy acquired from a lifetime in racist environments. The underutilized Tonya Pinkins, in the small role of his wife, has little more to do than bravely support him.
The story centers around young, earnest and white local lawyer, Jake Brigance (a likeable Sebastian Arcelus), who Hailey chooses to represent him over the offer of free and better-experienced attorneys from the NAACP. He's assisted by his disbarred, hard-drinking pal, Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt, giving a crusty good ol' boy performance) who isn't above battling the presumed racism of the all-white jury with his own unethical methods, including calling in a drinking buddy psychiatrist (John Procaccino) to testify that Hailey was temporarily insane.
Further assistance, the more ethical kind, is offered by a spunky Ashley Williams as an ambitious Boston law student who sees the case as a potential star entry on her resume and pleads for a chance to assist Jake pro bono. ("You gotta let me in on this. Black father killing two white men who raped his daughter? That's the stuff my dreams are made of.")
Terrific supporting work is supplied by Fred Dalton Thompson (whose pre-acting career included eight years as U.S. Senator from the State of Tennessee and serving on the Senate Watergate Committee) as the gruff and businesslike judge trying to keep the trial from becoming a circus and Chike Johnson as the black county sheriff keeping his actions impartial, even if his heart isn't. He's especially effective in a scene where, alone with Hailey, he explains the special etiquette needed to survive as a black man in a Mississippi courthouse.
While the first act does a fine job of setting up the circumstances, injecting dark humor, and leaving us with a kicker curtain scene, the second act proves a bit problematic as the sympathy of the play artificially leans heavily in favor of the defense. The most obvious hole in the plot is that the trial scenes make no mention of the police deputy who was accidentally hit by one of Hailey's bullets and suffered serious permanent physical injury. Is the audience expected to just forget about him while supporting the heartbroken father?
District Attorney Rufus R. Buckley, who, if the murders had not been committed, would have been the hero prosecuting the two rapists, is scripted as a slick and devious opportunist who only cares about using his position to help him get a crack at the governorship. The exceptional Patrick Page has established himself as one of Broadway's experts in such villainous roles and his smooth basso drawl and elegant manners are perfectly suited to the part. But it would be nice to see this fine actor cast as a different type once in a while.
But despite the play's flaws, director Ethan McSweeny turns in a tense and energetic production, featuring a tight ensemble that glosses over the rough patches. James Noone's versatile set, utilizing a tall wood-planked wall and a turntable floor, smoothly glides to multiple locations. Jeff Croiter's lights, Jeff Sugg's projections and Lindsay Jones' sound establish the outside world with visual and audible evidence of Klan rallies, protests and a child's-eye view of the event that sets the story in motion. (The projected epilogue may either warm your heart or make you roll your eyes with its sentimentality.)
Naturally, the interpretation of the events unfolding on the Golden Theatre stage may strike this white theatre critic differently than it would strike one of a different race; a good reason to have not just court cases but Broadway drama evaluated by a diverse jury.