"In the whodunit, I did it," John Douglas Thompson cheerfully confessed at the press meet 'n' greet for A Time to Kill recently. "I take justice into my own hands by taking the lives of two white men who have done unspeakable crimes to my daughter."
The novel that started John Grisham's steady procession of bestsellers, opening Oct. 20 at the Golden Theatre, is the first to become a Broadway play. The mystery it harbors is not whodunit; it's will justice be done? Indeed, is there a time to kill?
Like Nick Charles used to do in the old "Thin Man" series, producer Daryl Roth gathered together all the usual suspects in one room — in this case, an impressive and carefully picked cast of 14 — and let the press scrutinize and photograph. The room was one of the larger and least haunted ones in a quasi-theatre on W. 27th St. where Sleep No More fitfully spins, and it was knee-deep in name-brand players: Thompson, Sebastian Arcelus, Ashley Williams, Chike Johnson, Patrick Page, Tonya Pinkins, Tom Skerritt, Fred Dalton Thompson, Jeffrey M. Bender, Dashiell Eaves, J.R. Horne, John Procaccino, Tijuana T. Ricks, Lee Sellars — all present and accounted for.
Eva Price, the show's other lead producer, is pleased the way the actors fit the characters they're playing. "When I sit and look at our production photos and I look at every actor who plays every role," she said contentedly, "I go down the line and I think, 'I can't picture anyone else for that.' It is a casting-perfection combination."
This production came into being in a very circuitous way — through a documentary Roth produced a few years ago on shelter animals called "My Dog: An Unconditional Love Song." She was approached by a gentleman who wanted to do a companion book on dogs for the film, so they took a meeting. "He walked into my office not knowing I was a theatre producer, thinking I was just some crazy dog lady, and we had our talk. At the end of it, he identified himself as a literary manager and said he represented John Grisham. He said, 'A Time to Kill was John's first book, and it's the one book he always felt could be adapted for the stage. Would you be interested?' I said, 'Sign me right up. I'm your gal.' That accidental encounter led to all of this." She went to the go-to guy for this sort thing, writer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Accomplice, Solitary Confinement, Curtains), and he saw a way in.
"I thought, 'You know, that's actually feasible because, even though the novel is 600 pages and has 200 characters, at the core of it is a terrific courtroom drama, and the courtroom case is about a murder that took place in that very same courtroom. There's nothing I love more on stage than a good courtroom drama, so maybe we can make one out of this and bring all the components of this epic novel into the trial itself. I used as a role model The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which took Herman Wouk's sea epic and found a way to bring it into a tight, compressed world."
Holmes pared the 200 characters down to 20, careful to preserve the individuality they had in the novel. He considers Grisham pretty close to the Dixie version of Dickens. "He gave you characters that you really care about. They live and breathe and bleed, and you care about their fate." He also took care in his telescoping that the story retained some mystery. "Even though you may think you know the outcome, there are enough new twists and turns in the story that we have innovated for this production that I still think it will keep you guessing where we're going."
Director Ethan McSweeny, an old hand at starry ensembles (Gore Vidal's The Best Man), huddled with Holmes over the script for three years. "At our first meeting," he recalled, "I said, 'Your challenge in any courtroom drama will always be 'How do you move the camera around the courtroom in a way that lets the audience perceive it from different angles? Theatre-wise, in a courtroom, you can very easily get stuck — one guy here, two lawyers at the table, the judge in his chambers, where's everyone going?' I think that idea appealed to him. What I cited was my Off-Broadway debut, Never the Sinner, about the Loeb-Leopold case. That was a courtroom drama where we used the cast to constantly rearrange the courtroom to give different looks at it."
A turntable should give this piece a visual variety that will cut down on the courtroom static and abet its storytelling. "One of the things we've learned about the play as we've worked on it," said McSweeney, "is we had to have the courtroom action but we also had to have the behind-the-scenes stuff that we understood the machinations of what was going on in court so we found a way to move fluidly from law offices to prison to courtroom to the front porch of judge's house, all over."
Ex-Elf Arcelus has been elevated to hero status here as the local lawyer seeking justice for an African-American in mid-'80s Mississippi. But the character doesn't come without flaws, the actor noted. "I like the fact he's not so simple. We have this sense that he's a young idealistic lawyer — and he is — but he's not the white knight who comes in and saves the day. He's a complicated hero. He is a small-town, fairly conservative street lawyer, who fashions himself to be a man of the people.
"There's a certain ease with which a person like that works through society, and there is also a point at which there is a difference between you and the man you're defending — not only in race, but in social class — and nothing you think you can do is going to bridge that gap, so you have to find a way to make the jury understand this case from the standpoint of a murder trial, but also from the standpoint of a racial trial. I always find it so interesting when a character thinks he's got it all figured out but really is so in over his head that he's got to actually figure it all out."
The man he is defending — according to Thompson, the actor playing him — is a fascinating character. "In order for me to understand him, I had to understand the racial and political history of Mississippi, which was so resistant to integration. The year of the play is 1986, but it's obviously informed by that racial and political history that led up to that point. That's 21 years after the civil rights movement ended, and there's a lot of remnants of that type of the segregationist society, Jim Crow and all that sort of stuff. I just paint that as the racial background of the play because one of the big issues of the play is race and justice."
A Time To Kill's opening echoes recent news; earlier this week, in Orange County, NY, a family man — father of two — was jailed for killing a fugitive rape suspect who had been terrorizing families in the area. Said one eye-witness: "I did not see a murder committed."
When discussing his own character, Thompson said, "I think that it's a personal thing. I think if you ask some fathers, 'If something like this was done to your daughter, what would you do?', they'd say, 'I'd kill him. I'd kill him.' Like, almost there's no thought. I could not deal with that kind of situation without taking the lives of the people who would do that to me and my family.
"Is there such a thing as equal justice under the law?" he said. "And, regardless of race, how does someone respond to tragedy and stress when it's committed against you and your family? We live within a country or a judicial system where, if you do take justice into your own hands, then you are against justice and you're on trial. That's exactly what happens to my character. He then becomes the subject of justice, whether it's going to be fair or not."