PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Time to Kill — A Grisham Goes Broadway

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21 Oct 2013

Sebastian Arcelus
Sebastian Arcelus
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new Broadway play A Time to Kill.

Last week we had a courtroomer that never got to court (The Winslow Boy); this week we have a courtroomer that not only gets to court but goes all over town. Fortunately, the town depicted in A Time to Kill, which bowed Oct. 20 at the Golden, is a small Mississippi burg, and the murder scene is in the already used courthouse.

The floating scenery devised by James Noone changes scenes faster than you can turn pages in a John Grisham novel. This, in fact, is based on the first of his long line of law-centric best-sellers. Like the granddaddy of all courtroom sagas, "Anatomy of a Murder," it raises the question of justifiable homicide — and does it exist?

The case in point is made by one Carl Lee Hailey, a distraught African-American father who gunned down two redneck rapists who savagely violated his 10-year-old daughter — before Mississippi justice (circa the mid-1980s) could be determined.

Hailey entrusts his case to a local street lawyer, Jake Brigance, who got his brother off of a similar charge, even when the NAACP is frothing at the bit to try the case free. The Act II trial arrives, and lawyers play to the audience like jurors.

First and last, the star here is the story, so it was exceedingly appropriate that Grisham, flanked by adapter Rupert Holmes and director Ethan McSweeny, take the last curtain call. He seemed pleased and applauded back to the standing ovation.

Grisham also looked very convincing on the red carpet, fielding questions from reporters. That one of his works had finally been turned into a Broadway play seemed to sincerely surprise him. "I don't think in terms of plays with my stories," Grisham confessed in a gentle Southern lilt, "but I always think in terms of a movie. However, when I read Rupert Holmes' play about three years ago, I said, 'I really like it. This really works, and let's go the next step.' Rupert really did a masterful job with it. He's honed it and fine-tuned it over the years. It's just gotten better and better."

Nine of Grisham's 26 best-sellers have been made into movies, and the first of these — the 1995 adaptation of "A Time to Kill" — made a star of Matthew McConaughey in the role of Jake. (Director Joel Schumacher shot him in a way that he resembled Paul Newman, which he did for the first and last time in his career.)

Sebastian Arcelus, the Broadway Jake, bears more than a passing resemblance to that McConaughey — particularly with the close-cropped curly hair. "I hope I wasn't cast because of my curls," the actor cracked when the subject was broached.

"I've been a John Grisham fan for a long time," he said, "so to be a part of the first adaptation of one of his works is about as good as it gets. It tells a story that matters.

"You can't quite answer the question that it raises. Essentially is vigilante justice justified in certain cases? That's a question that, ultimately, you can't blanketly answer. You can answer for yourself, and even then, I don't think you can answer it yourself unless you're, God forbid, thrust into a situation where you have to. We can't live in a chaotic society on one hand, and on the other want to believe the legal system can 'take care of us' in the aftermath of a terrible event. At the same time, justice is not necessarily always blind, and the legal system is not necessarily as black and white as we sometimes believe it is."


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