John Grisham’s South is an ethically uncomplicated place. Racist hicks rape ten-year-old Black girls. Idealistic lawyers, with rolled up sleeves and toothpicks planted firmly in their mouths, mosey into empty courtrooms—perhaps to spend a private moment with the smell of justice. And fathers whose daughters have been harmed know the meaning of Ecclesiastes 3:1: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” A Time to Kill, a blockbuster novel and a blockbuster movie, is now on Broadway. For more than one reason, of course, it echoes Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s Inherit the Wind, another liberal wet dream about the justice system. But Rupert Holmes’ adaptation is sillier and as a result its self-righteousness is less grating; so long as you don’t expect it to provide any insights on race relations or the law, it can be a fairly entertaining little show.
Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) is the father in question, who responds to the rape of his daughter Tonya by murdering the two men responsible—he brings an M16 into their arraignment and blasts them away, immediately surrendering to the police and enlisting the help of Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), a lawyer known to be sympathetic to Black causes. But Brigance has a tough case ahead of him: in addition to threats from the Klan, he has to prove temporary insanity, a defense no good counselor would touch. He is also up against the showboating D.A., Rufus Buckley (Patrick Page), who’s gunning for Governor of Mississippi, and Judge Noose (Fred Dalton Thompson), a curmudgeon whose last name is taken to be an indication of his leniency. Fortunately, Jake gets help from a drunk, disbarred but talented friend, Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt), and a young, go-getting law student, Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams).
Director Ethan McSweeney has assembled quite the cast here: to be with, Mr. Thompson seems about as excited to be on Broadway as he did to be running for president. When he doesn’t flub his lines, he mumbles them, and his performance gives the impression of either the late Orson Welles (we half-expect there to be a bottle under his bench) or a high schooler who signed up to be in the fall play for the class credit. Mr. Arcelus, too, performs like a sixteen-year-old, but he’s the star quarterback who was flattered into drama by a kooky ex-hippie teacher. More likely, he was cast because he looks almost identical to his film counterpart, Matthew McConaughey. Mr. Page, on the other hand, has a kind of swaggering brilliance. His silky Southern accent goes down so smoothly that he could talk a mob into committing or preventing the lynching of an innocent man—and would do either, depending on which would earn him more votes. Finally, Mr. Skerritt is charming as ever, playing the roughish alcoholic like a veteran.
Perhaps if Tonya appeared in the play, this would all be in bad taste. Perhaps if we had a sense that the Klan meant anything to Mr. Grisham outside of an embodiment of pure evil—it might as well have been moon Nazis who raped the girl—there would be the sickening feel of exploitation to A Time to Kill. But because it is so divorced from reality, because it has as much legal accuracy as the Hepburn and Tracy movie Adam’s Rib, it gets away with its emotional manipulation. It brings us back to childhood, when racism really was a clear-cut issue, when bigots (them) belonged in one camp and liberals (us) in another. And really, who doesn’t love feeling the powerful rage of naiveté? Just don’t take it outside of the theater when the play is over.