The plot, too, in tailoring by playwright Rupert Holmes, adheres to the prevailing formula, and even if you’ve never Kindled Grisham’s well-crafted bestsellers, you would be able to place a winning bet on the outcome 15 minutes into the 2½-hour show. It’s mashed-potatoes theater, easy to digest and decently filling, but nothing you have not swallowed 1,000 times before.
“A Time to Kill” has already been in wide release as a book and a 1996 movie, starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock and Kevin Spacey. The courtroom format lends itself economically to the stage, although Holmes and McSweeny don’t ever make clear what new aspect of “A Time to Kill” they want to elucidate. The legal jousting between Rufus and hero defense attorney Jake Brigance (the ultra-smooth Sebastian Arcelus, wearing his hair combed back just like McConaughey) is not ingenious enough to keep us guessing: Any episode of “The Good Wife”— the best show on TV, in my humble opinion — tries far harder to outwit us.
And the thematic backdrop of vestigial racism in the New South (the story is set in 1985) remains just that: window dressing. The fiery reaction to the case unfolding in the Clanton, Miss., courthouse is mostly confined to concocted news footage broadcast on a phalanx of television sets embedded in James Noone’s turntable courtroom set. The race card is played one time in court, but the manipulative way that it’s pulled, and the surprising identity of the manipulator, are mere devices to get us to a resolution. The element of drama that examines motive, explores its consequences, is overlooked.
As for the case, ladies and gentlemen, the provoking event is this: Two white men rape a 10-year-old black girl. What next transpires is supposed to have some shock value, so I will try not to give too much away. It involves her father, who as a result hires the whiz kid defense attorney. Facing the wrath of the Klan, the white lawyer looks to win an acquittal for his new client with a dubious defense. The questions raised have to do with how much empathy white Mississippi can feel for its black citizens.
It’s a compelling scenario, although Holmes has not found an effective way of conveying the tension. One of the weaknesses is in the transparent imbalance in the courtroom combatants. See, Rufus is a doofus; Brown’s almost too good at unctuousness. And Jake is so appealingly on top of his game — heck, even the crusty Southern judge (a terrific Evan Thompson) seems to have a soft spot for him — that you start to feel a little pity for the outclassed prosecutor.