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

By Harry Haun
21 Oct 2013

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.