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

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Time to Kill — A Grisham Goes Broadway offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new Broadway play A Time to Kill.

Sebastian Arcelus
Sebastian Arcelus Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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."

Rupert Holmes
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

At the party that followed the curtain calls, held at the elegant Bryant Park Grill, adapter Holmes came in for a lot of praise for the unexpected humor and character comedy that he extracted from the grim, sad circumstances of a murder trial. "It was a joy to write and adapt John Grisham's work," he said. "As I went through it, I thought, 'You know, there's a lot of things in this novel, but if you put them on a Broadway stage, some of the byplay of the characters is actually quite funny, and I thought it was possible for us to have an interesting blend of chills, of deep passion, of moral issues, of judicial issues, and also have some fun with the courtroom."

As the accused, John Douglas Thompson brings enormous dignity and compassion to the part. He normally works with classical plays and not in this century at all.

But he will be staying in the 20th century for his next project, which will be coming Off-Broadway in mid-March: Satchmo at the Waldorf. "We did it in Boston at Shakespeare & Company," he said. "It's written by Terry Teachout, who's the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. He wrote a book called 'Pops,' and then from 'Pops' he wrote a play which is essentially about Louis Armstrong and the relationship he had with his manager, a Jewish gentleman by the name of Joe Glaser, who was also a mobster. He was his manager for 40 years, pretty much till Joe Glaser passed away in 1969, and then two years later Armstrong passed away, so it's really about the complex relationship they had over the years.

"I'm of a different generation, obviously, but a lot of the people who came to the show were certainly Armstrong generation or certainly saw him toward the end of his life or in the middle of his life and became very familiar with him through 'Hello, Dolly!' of all things. And they really took to the show. I just realized he's a beloved icon, not only in America but throughout the world. There were a lot of people who came to the show from different countries, and what they got from the show was this whole different side of Armstrong. We totally get his public persona because we've seen him in films and concerts, but this is much more about the his private world, so I'm very excited to get a chance to do that in New York."

Southern-fried and silver-tongued, Patrick Page has the enviable, scene-stealing spot of any courtroom drama — the prosecuting attorney (in this case, Rufus R. Buckley, Polk County district attorney who is using a headline-hot trial to showboat his way into the governor's mansion). It was from this particular courtroom slot that George C. Scott stole "Anatomy of a Murder" and Sanford Meisner stole "The Story on Page One." "It's a great position to be given in the show, especially if you're prosecuting someone the audience wants to see acquitted," Page conceded.

The accent came easily for him. "It's a gift when a playwright gives you a real context like that. You know exactly where the man is from. I was able to find the accent because I remembered hearing historian Shelby Foote on the Civil War series that Ken Burns did, and he had an accent that has really been dying out. Thank God, I found this recording of two hours of William Faulkner reading his own work. Once I found that, it was everything for me. It's strange how you can find a little extra detail like that and everything will fall into place. Once I found that, I knew the guy."

Page certainly dresses for courtroom battle and, quite possibly, the governorship. One shiny blue suit is a particular standout, and he was quick to give credit where credit was due: "Those are all done by David C. Woolard. When I got the role, David wrote me and said, 'We're going to do some killer suits for you on this show.' They were all tailored to me and made by a tailor in New York so they're bespoke suits."

In one of his last heated exchanges, Buckley (in a fillip not in the novel) reveals himself to be the bigot we always suspected he was. "I think anytime you're play a character who wears a mask — and almost all of us do — everybody in life wears some kind of mask — it has to come off," said the erstwhile Green Goblin. "The more extreme the mask, the more rewarding it is to see it come off, so, if a man is pretending he is not racist, it's very rewarding to see the mask come off and realize he is. It's a delicate moment, and, if I do it right, it comes out of the fact that he has been so humiliated on the stand right before that that he's off his game entirely and therefore does something under normal circumstances he would never, ever do."

A Time to Kill was a play that generated absolutely no word of mouth in previews — the better to surprise you with, my dear. "I was really gratified by tonight's audience by how much they were moved, how much they applauded and gasped and laughed," noted a relieved director McSweeny. "I feel like we've been the underdog for a long time. I relish that status, and I'll take it because I feel like audiences are discovering us. As an audience member, I love it when I get to make a discovery, when I get to play, not always knowing what to expect and discovering something new and exciting. I think we've been rewarding those audiences tremendously."

Ashley Williams
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Ashley Williams delivers a sparkplug performance in her Broadway debut, sharply reminiscent of Sandra Bullock in the movie, as Ellen Roark, a fresh breeze from the North who sweeps in and lands a job as a legal aide assisting Jake building his case. She'd like to assist him in other ways, too, but he informs her he's very married — and he almost always sticks to those guns. (Fidelity seems to be some kind of Southern tradition; happily, the wife and kid aren't around to inhibit their silent sexual heat.) "It's really more under the lines that on the lines, which is really fun to play.

"It's really interesting to play a character like this," said Williams. "The way I see her is she's really torn between her masculine and feminine sides. I think she grew up with her father, a famous law attorney kinda like a William Kunstler figure, and she was so inspired by him. Her mother was this debutante, Southern, Phi Beta Kappa girl, and she was not intimidated by that at all. Instead of having her hair up in ponytails and wearing dresses the way her mother wanted her to, she would instead go to her father's law office and read the dictionary and listen to his conference calls.

"I think that led her to become who she was — a female in a man's world — and there's a constant female pull and male pull within her as well. I think she's driven to go down to the South because women have a lot of power in the South if they use their sexuality and their femininity in their favor. She's so fascinated by Southern culture because it perfectly encapsulates the dynamic within her of male versus female."

Also, two very familiar film faces finally get around to the Broadway stage in this. Tom Skerritt, late of "M*A*S*H" and "Picket Fences," is the source of much fun as Lucien Wilbanks, a gray-haired old geezer who helps and advises Jake on the case. Think Arthur O'Connell in "Anatomy of a Murder," in other words. "He's a little over-the-top in his drinking. He's been disbarred, and he's trying to resurrect himself. "It's the first time I've played Broadway. It's not the first offer I've had. This time it is just right. I almost feel ultimately this is a gift for having led a very good life. This is a great challenge for me to do, first of all, and it's that challenge that excited me. This is good writing. This is good storytelling. I'm a storyteller, and John Grisham tells stories well, and this one has a lot of substance and context to it. It has it all."

Proving he's not too old a dog to learn new tricks has delighted him. "Oh, this is quite a different approach. The writing is different than the other mediums. The approach to it is different — quite a different orientation in terms of discipline."

Of the same opinion is the long-time-getting-here Fred Dalton Thompson, a Tennessee State Senator and lawyer and late-blooming film actor. His very judicial face presides over the proceedings, brooking no nonsense from anybody and especially the vainglorious prosecuting attorney Page plays. What's the backstory?

"I don't know if there is one," Thompson admitted. "What we had talked about was that these two characters had traveled in the same circles, and we knew each other. He was an ambitious, younger politician. I was an older politician, and I just mainly wanted to make sure in a friendly but stern way, that he didn't make me look bad — that he didn't get out of hand and embarrass anybody. I didn't want whites to get mad at me. I didn't want the blacks mad at me. I wanted to get this thing over with." And to that end, he runs a tight court, moving the story along between some humorous asides.

Two other firsts for Thompson: this is the first time he has ever been a judge, and it's the first time he's played a role bald. His next career move? Maybe Mr. Clean.

The other Broadway debut in this play is made by Tijuana Ricks in the role of Norma Gailo, court reporter. Her big moment is when she reads back testimony.

"Norma," said Ricks, "is one of the examples of someone who actually lives in this town who is a part of this community. Even though she has a position hired by the courts simply to report and write what she hears, she's still a part of this and has feelings and has opinions, so I try to relay that as silently as possible in the court."

Tony winner Tonya Pinkins packs her small role of Carl Lee's quietly suffering wife with maximum emotion and talent to spare. Her reason for taking on such a small role is simple: "I think it's very rare that you get to see black people in their grief. You get to see them angry a lot, so it was wonderful to get to come in and show us — in a sort of broken place. A lot of times people want to see us strong all the time, and this was not a moment in her life where there was any strength left in her. I think she would have rather taken her daughter's place or her husband's place than to be so powerless and helpless — so I really wanted to bring that suffering to it."

Dashiell Eaves, as one of two rapists, is allowed a chilling scene in which he dispassionately reads his confession to the heinous rape. "I can't say I enjoyed doing it, but it's fun to tackle it," he admitted. Exiting that short-lived life, he comes back as co-counsel to the district attorney. "I have only a handful of lines, but I enjoy being out there, being a part of the courtroom action even though I don't talk that much."

Among the 180 Mississippi denizens that didn't make the cut for the play are two you may be glad aren't aboard: Jake's wife and daughter who are sent packing to another city after the first death threat. The only man-woman combustible heat on stage is between Jake and his aide Ellen, and he has its fire pretty under control. There is also much more to the story of the alcoholic psychiatrist, a drinking buddy of Lucien's presumably, that Jake puts on the stand to testify to the insanity of the accused — only to be blown out of the witness stand by an ancient statutory rape charge.

"The woman I'm accused to having raped was two years younger than me and we were madly in love and we were married, and that's why it was expunged from the record," said John Procaccino, who quietly keeps this game-changer to himself. "That affects very much how and what I am on stage. Also, he's in the shape he's in when we first see him because he's lost his wife, the love of his life. We don't find out that she's died. It used to be in the script, but they had to take it out because things were getting too complicated. I'm blessed with a character that has a nice arc to it." You just don't get to see it all, and he leaves the stand like a whipped puppy.

Kimberly Williams-Paisley, the bride to Steve Martin's "Father of the Bride" and now hyphenated with children, came in to see her younger sister, Ashley, follow her onto the Broadway stage. She bowed here in 1997, replacing Arija Bareikis' as Sunny in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and she claims she'd love to get back to The Great White Way.

Stephanie J. Block, star of Holmes' last show, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, came to see her husband (Arcelus) star in Holmes' latest. She's hitting the road back to the stage, too, as the mom aboard a cramped family mini-van in William Finn and James Lapine's musicalized Little Miss Sunshine, now set to open Nov. 14 at Second Stage. And Paige Davis was there to cheer on, or muffle the hisses, for hubby Patrick Page, the defense attorney. That's right: the marriage makes her Paige Page. Singer Dee Snider attended because producer John B. Yonover is also producing Dee Snider's Rock and Roll Christmas Tale, an alternative Christmas holiday entertainment bowing soon in the Midwest.

Phylicia Rashad was showing support for John Douglas Thompson; David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk came for Holmes, the guy who gave them Kander and Ebb's Curtains. Singer-actress Nancy Anderson, last seen in Far From Heaven and next seen in the Pittsburgh Public revival of Company as Sarah the karate lady, was there for her fiancé, director McSweeny. Busy, busy Joan Rivers ("'Joan and Melissa' is in its fourth season, 'Fashion Police' just got renewed for three years and the new 'In Bed With Joan' on the Internet where I just sit in bed and interview celebrities") came because she is a friend of lead producer Daryl Roth and a fan of John Grisham.

Patrick Stewart and Shuler Hensley rushed over from Waiting for Godot with respective wives in tow. "We finally moved to the Cort yesterday," said Hensley. "We have a week of Godot, and then we have audiences starting next week." He just got wind of the Broadway revival of Of Mice and Men, starring James Franco, and plans to have his agent put him up for Lenny, a part he would be perfect for.

Also attending: Sandy Duncan (still my favorite Roxie Hart after Gwen Verdon, and on tap to salute Ron Field for the "Dancers Over 40" group Oct. 21 at St. Luke's Theatre), John Rich in a black cowboy hat; LuAnn de Lesseps; newsman Thomas Roberts; the newly Emmy-ed Bobby Cannavale (currently crowing out the Rooster role and "Easy Street" in the new "Annie" film); S. Epatha Merkerson of "Law and Order"; Betsy Brandt; newly Tony-ed director Pam MacKinnon; a running-late Brooke Shields; actor-turning director Lee Wilkof; Zachary Quinto (wearing a toboggan cap not unlike the one he wears as a remembering seaman in The Glass Menagerie) Barbara Walters and police commissioner Ray Kelly with wife Veronica.

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