A Time to Kill has been captivating audiences for over 20 years. The novel, which eventually became a best-seller, was first published in 1989. In 1996, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey starred in the film version. Adapted for the stage by Tony award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes, A Time to Kill explores the undercurrent of race in our justice system. A 10-year-old black girl is savagely raped, beaten, almost lynched and left for dead. The two perpetrators are shot and killed at the courthouse by the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey. Hailey is arrested and charged with first degree murder sparking tensions that had bubbled underneath the surface of a Mississippi town and subsequently gained nationwide attention. Hailey hires Jake Brigance, a white attorney, as his defense lawyer. Receiving advice from his disbarred mentor and much needed assistance from a pushy Bostonian intern, Jake begins to build an insanity defense for Carl Lee, while receiving death threats from Ku Klux Klan. In court he tangles with Rufus R. Buckley, a superstar district attorney on his way to the governor’s office. And while explosions erupt in and out of the courtroom, Jake uses an impassioned plea to get the jury to acquit Carl Lee.
The plot of A Time to Kill is well-known, it’s robust and meaty. I liken Rupert Holmes’ A Time to Kill to a fillet – some parts are stripped away but there is still enough meat for the audience to sink its teeth in. The actors of this production had some pretty large shoes to fill considering some of the biggest names in Hollywood performed these characters on screen; the comparisons to the actors of the film are inevitable. Led by Sebastian Arcelus, who plays Jake Brigance, each member of this cast turn in a fair performance. Veterans Tom Skerritt and Fred Dalton Thompson offer great portrayals of Lucien Wilbanks and Judge Omar Noose. Skerritt was as charming as ever as Lucien and Thompson’s feisty Judge Noose was a pleasure to watch, however it’s still the relationship between Jake Brigance and Carl Lee Hailey that drives this story. Sebastian Arcelus and John Douglas Thompson showed promise as Jake and Carl Lee.
A Time to Kill received negative reviews when it played in D.C. in 2011, but the creative team appears to have worked out some of the kinks and the Broadway version is more solid. Whether you have read the novel or saw the movie, this adaptation of A Time to Kill ultimately provides its audience with a thought-provoking experience and is a good addition to the legacy of one of John Grisham’s most recognized stories.