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May 26, 2011

Arena Stage premieres adaptation of John Grisham novel 'A Time to Kill'

Arena Stage has had an awfully eventful inaugural season in its vibrant new facility, starting last fall with an "Oklahoma" revival so widely acclaimed and box office-boosting that it's coming back for a summer run.

The company now has yet another high-profile production on the boards, the premiere of "A Time to Kill," adapted by Rupert Holmes from John Grisham's first novel.

This marks the first theatrical treatment of a book by the prolific, hugely popular writer, so the venture has newsiness built into it. And the Arena folks have lavished care on the work, assembling a large cast that does it justice and a design team that provides an efficient, atmospheric staging.

The final verdict on this highly-charged courtroom drama is mixed. It is impossible to miss the craftsmanship of the writing, acting and direction. It would take considerable effort not to be caught up in the story of Carl Lee Hailey, a black man in Mississippi who shoots dead the two men accused of raping his 10-year-old daughter as they are being led from a courtroom; he then faces a murder trial.

But it's also possible to feel shortchanged. The play stays largely on the surface of a plot that pushes just about every emotional, political, racial, social and economic button, but doesn't go very deep into any of the issues.

The piece cannot help but bring to mind images of "To Kill a Mockingbird," with smidgens of "Inherit the Wind," "The Verdict" and, it seems, even some "Matlock" episodes thrown in. With its revolving set allowing for a quick flow, "A Time to Kill" starts to resemble a TV show being filmed before a live audience.

Stereotypes abound among the characters. Some of the plot twists creak loudly and obviously. Some of the writing bumps head-on into ...

cliche-ville, nowhere more cheaply than when flirtatious law student Ellen Roark tells Hailey's heroic defense attorney, Jake Brigance, he really should see her "briefs." And some of the humor seems awfully awkward, given the subject matter at the heart of the play.

But, just when you are about to raise an objection, the show scores telling points, engages your senses, and really does surprise (scenes involving two "expert" medical witnesses take particularly cool turns).

The two and a half hours pass rapidly. There's no chance for boredom to be sustained.

Sebastian Arcelus is a convincing Jake, with quite a few layers of nuance fleshing out the character. He delivers the final summation to the jury, a speech that could easily go over the top emotionally, with a subtle, affecting power. Dion Graham, too, creates a richly realized portrayal of Carl Lee, making it possible to understand the man's naive faith in the system -- and his sense of right and wrong -- all the way through.

As Rufus Buckley, the insufferably smug prosecutor with an eye on a political career, Brennan Brown nearly walks off with the show. It's a terribly blatant role, but the actor manages to deepen it just enough to avoid caricature. Rosie Benton does assured work as Ellen. Evan Thompson, sporting eyebrows for days, makes a vivid Judge Omar Noose (Hailey's comment about that jurist -- "Not too crazy about his name" -- gets one of the bigger laughs in the play).

Erin Davie, as Jake's wife, and John C. Vennema, as the disbarred, but undeterred, lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, make colorful contributions. The rest of the cast, which includes Everyman Theatre veteran Deborah Hazlett taking on two roles with her usual finesse, proves consistently persuasive.

Ethan McSweeny's propulsive direction takes full advantage of James Noone's nicely detailed, revolving set, expertly lit by York Kennedy.

In the end, "A Time to Kill" might not be a landmark case of stage adaption, but it does have an appeal.

The production runs through June 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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