From Page to Stage: John Grisham's A Time To Kill Makes Broadway Debut

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19 Oct 2013

"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.


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