Theater archives

Misplaced Humor Distracts in Stage Adaptation of A Time to Kill


Sometimes, a few well-delivered laugh lines are what makes a production tick. Other times, though, straining for levity strikes a sour note—especially when the subjects at hand are rape, murder, and racial injustice. Such is the case with A Time to Kill, a new Broadway adaptation of John Grisham’s courtroom novel, directed by Ethan McSweeny.

Less suspenseful and more moralistic than, say, The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill is the tale of Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), who responds to the brutal rape of his 10-year-old daughter by shooting her attackers. Hailey is African-American; the men he kills are white. Defending him—as a drawn-out trial unfolds in a sweaty Mississippi courtroom—is untested young attorney Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus). The D.A. wants Hailey executed, and Brigance must win the jury’s sympathy in a town where the KKK is never very far away.

Unfortunately, McSweeny’s production relies primarily on misplaced humor and heavy use of a revolving stage (which mainly shows us different views of the same courtroom). The more the white lawyers ham it up, the less we notice Hailey, the African-American defendant whose life is at stake. The play concludes with smiles, embraces, and invitations to interracial barbecues—but I was ready to declare a mistrial.