Theatre 68 inaugurates its new, spiffily remodeled Lankershim digs with Rupert Holmes’ skillful 2013 Broadway stage adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, an edge-of-your-seat West Coast Premiere likely to prove right up any courtroom-drama lover’s alley.

14589628_1138537969555803_4682348268908078337_o Like Grisham’s 1989 bestseller, Holmes’ two-acter focuses on a black Mississippian accused of murdering the two young rednecks about to be tried for the brutal rape of his ten-year-old daughter.

Convinced that local white attorney Jake Brigance (Ian Robert Peterson) has what it takes to get him off on a plea of insanity, accused killer Carl Lee Hailey (Bechir Sylvain) manages to bargain Jake down to an affordable $5000, a sum the young lawyer accepts but not without some trepidation.

14633672_1138537839555816_8546289130654956044_o This is, after all, the heart of racist Dixie, and a hung jury may well be the best Jake can hope for, that is assuming Judge Omar Noose (John William Young) doesn’t sway the jury towards a guilty verdict.

Leading the prosecution is gubernatorial hopeful Rufus R. Buckley (Gregory Thirloway), whose expert witness, psychiatrist Dr. W.T. Bass (Robert Dominick Jones), could well prove the greatest threat to Carl Lee’s acquittal, that is unless the defense can come up with a credible shrink of their own.

14556566_1138538062889127_4879701979917284037_o Fortunately, Jake’s longtime mentor Lucien Wilbanks (Paul Thomas Arnold), though drunk and disbarred, is not without contacts in the psychiatric field, news that would be encouraging were his pick, Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver (Joe Capucini), not himself an unapologetic alcoholic.

Completing Carl Lee’s defense team is Boston-bred Ole Miss law student Ellen Roark (Mércedes Manning), smart as a whip and entirely too attractive for the decidedly married-with-child Jake’s own good.

14956575_1145421895534077_5556335975110102186_n Holmes’ stage adaptation not only holds an audience in suspense all the way up to its climactic post-verdict moments, it makes neither the trial’s outcome nor indeed our own sympathies a done deal.

la-et-cm-time-to-kill-review-20161028 There’s little doubt that Carl Lee knew exactly what he was doing when he shot and killed Pete Willard (Jalil Houssain) and Billy Ray Cobb (Stephen Wu). Heck, he pretty much told Jake his intentions when he asked the lawyer to meet him at the jail upon his arrest.

Holmes skillfully strips away Grisham subplots to maintain focus on what transpires inside and just around Judge Noose’s courtroom, smoothly choreographed scene changes revealing Danny Cistone’s chameleonlike set’s many wonders. (That Holmes’ adaptation specifies an Act Two perspective switch designed to make the audience the jury is an added plus.)

14753861_1138538139555786_160257346613330668_o Director Ronnie Marmo elicits all-around fine work from his cast of nineteen, a number virtually unheard of these days and just one reason A Time To Kill has more in common with 20th-century classics like Twelve Angry Men, Inherit The Wind, and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial than recent small-cast two-handers like Red, Proof, and Doubt.

Indeed A Time To Kill’s West Coast Premiere’ sole misstep is to fast-forward Grisham and Holmes’ early ’80s timeframe to the present day and expect us to buy that Mississippi lawyers live minus Internet, cell phones, lap tops, and social media.

mercedes_manning__ian_robert_peterson_by_steven_jones Major players Peterson, Thirloway, Sylvain, Manning, Young, and Arnold give powerful performances (Manning in particular is a stunner) as do Hansford Prince (Ozzie Walls) and Atika Greene (Gwen Hailey), with colorful supporting turns rendered by Jones, Capucini, and Caroline Simone O’Brien (Cora Cobb), and sharply-defined cameos by Hussain, Wu, Peter Osterweil (Vernon Pate), Heidi Rhodes (Drew Tyndale), Jarrod Robbins (Brent Musgrove), Jennifer Nwene (Norma Gallo), Steven Jones (Deputy Looney), and Christopher Kelly (Terrell Grist). (Unfortunately for Kelly, his one big scene gets staged so far downstage that only the front row can catch sight of him.)

14566276_1806854259526852_4766722800544030841_o Matt Richter’s striking lighting, Crystal Craft’s diverse mix of costumes, Christopher Hirtz’s dramatic multimedia design, and Aaron Craig suspense-enhancing sound design are all topnotch.

A Time To Kill is produced by Marmo. Elizabeth Izzo and Katy Jacoby are co-producers. Anna Yosin, Andrew J. Retland, and Brittany Rizzo are assistant directors.

There’s a reason why courtroom dramas make for New York Times bestsellers, TV hits, movie smashes, and Broadway Tony winners, and and if you’ve forgotten what that is, check out Theatre 68’s A Time To Kill. You’ll quickly be reminded why readers and audiences keep coming back for more.

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Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 4, 2106
Photos: Steven Jones


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