Theatre 68 premiered its 2016-17 season on October 14 at its new North Hollywood home with, A Time To Kill, the cutting edge legal suspense thriller adapted for stage by Rupert Holmes based on the 1989 novel written by John Grisham.
Audiences may also recognize this story through the film genre. A Time to Kill was made into a movie in 1996 starring actors Samuel L. Jackson as defendant Carl Lee Hailey along with Matthew McConaughey as young lawyer Jake Brigance, Sandra Bullock as law student Ellen Roark and Ashley Judd as Carla Brigance (Jake’s wife whose character does not actually make it into the play) and a supporting celebrity cast that brought the production critical commercial acclaim.
Set here mostly as a courtroom drama, A Time To Kill is likely hotter than when it was first published. Given the content and when put into context with today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, the story offers genuine relevance and perspective. None of the imaginable violence nor general racism of the time is missing. Nor is the potency of the relationship between Hailey and Brigance overlooked. It does forgo development of other peripheral alliances however, to solely focus on the present moment drama, a decision that allows a breath-pausing intensity to hover at all times inside the production.
Carl Lee Hailey, a black man, has shot and killed two white men accused of brutally raping and beating his 10-year-old daughter, in the very courtroom where he now stands trial. Jake Brigance sees Hailey’s act as a desperate bid for justice and is willing to risk everything to defend his client’s life. The question asked is, “When is it right to take justice into your own hands?”
A Time To Kill in itself is a gripping story that automatically supports the actors/players revolving around inside the drama. Lead actor Bechir Sylvain’s (Carl Lee Hailey) appeal definitely lends sway to his courtroom likeability as a man in crisis. As does lead actor Ian Robert Peterson (Jake Brigance) whose charm rests in both his passion for justice and naïveté and trust in people. Gregory Thirloway nails the love-to-hate-him/hate-to-love-him District Attorney on the rise, Rufus R. Buckly. And the entire cast definitely steps up this production in every way when possible, including Mercedes Manning (Roark) whose character is written slightly one-dimensional and Gisla Stringer (Gwen Hailey) who really rounds out her husband’s personality much more than her own. John William Young as Judge Omar Noose brings occasional levity that resets the severity.
Only a single moment takes audiences out of this production and that is Jake Brigance’s final summation before the jury. A choice has been made to emotionally ‘lead’ the audience with melodramatic music, which detracts from the tension rather than trusting Peterson to carry the seriousness of the moment on his own. He can and he does. But we lose his 360 surprise.
Otherwise, Director Ronnie Marmo has beautifully set the visuals and the tone, keeping the pace crisp. The production is also endowed with an outstanding, creatively designed, moving set built by Danny Cistone, that brilliantly becomes multiple locations inside and outside of the courtroom.
A Time To Kill is an acute tragedy-to-triumph drama as produced and for audiences who especially are not yet familiar with the company’s work, an impressive introduction to Theatre 68.
A Time To Kill
by John Grisham
Adapted for Stage by Rupert Holmes
Directed/Produced by Ronnie Marmo
Co-Producers: Liz Izzo & Katy Jacoby
Set Design by Danny Cistone
Lighting Design by Mathew Richter
With: Ian Peterson. Bechir Sylvein, John William Young, Hansford Prince, Greg Thirloway, Mercedes Manning, Peter Ostereli, Paul Thomas Arnold, Gisla Stringer, Heidi Rhodes, Jalil Houssain, Steven Jones, Robert Dominick Jones, Joe Capucini, Jenny Nwene, Christopher Kelly, Caroline Simone O’Brian, Jarrod Robbins, and Steven Wu.