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A Time to Kill is now enjoying its third life. The play is set in Mississippi in the 1980s, when two drunken white men gang rape a 10-year-old black girl. Fearing that the men will receive a mere slap on the wrist, the girl’s father Carl Lee takes the law in his own hands, shooting them as they are led from court. So begins John Grisham‘s first novel, which was originally rejected by publishers and in 1996 was adapted into a film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey. Rupert Holmes‘ adaptation of the story opened last month at Arena Stage, and it runs to June 19.
Actor Sebastian Arcelus plays Jake Brigance, the lawyer who defends Carl Lee. Arcelus spoke to Arts Desk about Brigance’s surprising complexities, and about how the play departs from its cinematic counterpart.
Washington City Paper: A Time to Kill departs from the film in significant ways. Was it me or was the play rather too funny? The play poked fun at the legal system moreso than focusing on the characters directly harmed by the heinous rape like the film did.
Sebastian Arcelus: Our writer, Rupert Holmes, has found many choice moments to tastefully guide us through that delicate balance with the use of humor. But, no, I certainly don’t think our play is about making fun of the legal system or not fully dramatizing the facts of the case. On the contrary, our director, Ethan McSweeney, guided us to dive deeply into the heart of all of these issues, whether they be emotional, intellectual, legal, racial, or otherwise. And at the end of the day, audiences are super-adept at recognizing truth, and one way to do that is certainly with laughter. It also probably doesn’t hurt that we’re presenting a smart, fast-paced legal thriller in a town known for its lawyers…
WCP: What’s it like playing Jake, the defense attorney, whose interest seems split between his client and becoming a hot-shot defense attorney?
SA: Well, it’s thrilling, to say the least. Jake’s an incredibly interesting character to play. What drew me to him was that he’s not your typical, liberal firebrand. Mr. Grisham created a much more nuanced, complicated figure in his novel. Yes, he’s a charismatic street lawyer who fashions himself a man of the people, but he’s actually quite conservative, oftentimes impulsive, and certainly selfish. These kinds of high-profile cases don’t come along all that often, so there’s no way to deny how tied his hunger and enthusiasm for the case are to his ambition, but, at the end of the day, I think his growth as a character is rooted in how invested he becomes in what’s really at stake here…not in what he might gain, but in what he loses. He does a significant amount of growing up in this play.
WCP: Why do you suppose the story was made into a play? Is there a special something that theater adds to this story that the novel or the film didn’t already do?
SA: I think there absolutely is a special synergy created with live theater. There’s nothing like experiencing such of range of emotion in this very direct and present way. And I think the bottom line lies in the nature of this particular story. It’s compelling in any form…as a novel, a film, or as a play. And when you can actually in the moment put the audience in the position of having to consider their relationship to these characters and to this case…and even to the very nature of the outcome of the trial…from the vantage point of the “jury,” that’s a very powerful experience. It’s quite something to feel the audience every night literally consider, “How would I rule if I were on that jury?”
WCP: What are some challenges you faced as an actor portraying Jake? In what ways are you similiar/different than your character?
SA: As I was mentioning before, my greatest attraction to playing Jake was also my greatest obstacle. I loved the fact that he was not your cookie-cutter, knight-in-shining-armor, liberal defense attorney, but rather a much more nuanced, complicated figure. He’s not just a charming, easy-going smooth-talker. He’s also quite ambitious, selfish, impulsive, and obstinate. I loved that. Still, it was at times difficult for me in rehearsal to keep myself from approaching him with a more altruistic mentality. We all want to think of ourselves as being on the “right” side of issues like the ones in this play, and, as an actor, you have to remind yourself to let your character be where they are in their journey. That’s a difficult process but a very freeing one when embraced. I couldn’t let myself get ahead of Jake. Every night, I have to find my way at the same pace that he finds his.