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Burning Crosses and Rotating Justice Inside the morally striking set design of Broadway's "A Time To Kill"

By RAVEN SNOOK

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A compelling legal drama usually invites viewers to consider a case from multiple perspectives, and in A Time to Kill, Tony Award-winner Rupert Holmes' adaptation of John Grisham's lauded debut novel of the same name, the audience sees the case in question from every angle---literally.

Set in Mississippi in the 1980s, the morally complex tale concerns Carl Lee Hailey, an African-American father who killed his young daughter's white rapists. While the defendant is seemingly guilty in the eyes of the law, his plight stirs up a wide range of reactions and emotions, both in his community and in his white defense attorney, Jake Brigance. Those responses are underscored by scenic designer James Noone's clever turntable set, which rotates throughout the two-act play. Every time the action returns to the courtroom, the players are physically in different places. It's so subtle you may not even notice it consciously at first, but this sly bit of staging emphasizes the play's point. Justice isn't always clear-cut, and as we learn more about a situation, our moral position might change.

A theatre veteran with 15 Broadway productions on his résumé, Noone is clearly the go-to guy for procedurals. A Time to Kill is his fourth, after the 1996 revival of Inherit the Wind, Getting and Spending, and Judgment at Nuremberg. "After all of my experiences putting courtrooms on stage, I breathed a sigh of relief when [A Time to Kill director Ethan McSweeny] proposed being able to change the perspective of the trial during the play," Noone says. "It's so liberating. Normally, you're stuck trying to design a set where the judge's bench, the witness stand, and the defender and prosecutor are all in positions where everyone can have a satisfying connection with them. The turntable allows that to happen in a simple and elegant way that works beautifully with the storytelling"

Both Noone and McSweeny worked on the world premiere of A Time to Kill at D.C.'s Arena Stage in 2011. While they also employed a rotating set in that production, the move to Broadway's Golden Theatre proved challenging. "The Golden is an awesome, intimate gem of a theatre, but our set has the scale that you might associate with a musical," McSweeny explains. "There are so many moving parts, and it's so tight back there. Jim makes the most ingenious use of the space that we have. The turntable allows us to take the audience on a journey where they're implicated in the decision process." In fact, during the second act, the audience is actually in the customary jury box position so the lawyers address viewers directly, which makes for a particularly engaging experience.

Outside the courtroom, one of the biggest visual changes for A Time to Kill on Broadway comes when Jake finds a burning cross on his lawn. "It's an integral piece of the play, but we didn't do it so successfully down in D.C.," McSweeny says. "Due to budget constraints, we just had lights on a cross that blinded the audience. When we were creating this version of the design, Jim did storyboards, and one of the pictures he drew was of Jake standing downstage looking back at something on fire. It's a visceral reminder of the very real societal problems and hatreds exposed by the play. It became a central image for me. It's a shocking thing to see a burning cross. It's a powerful visual that I hope we're using carefully, since it connects to our collective history."

Luckily, Noone had experience with live flames. "I worked with them in Jekyll & Hyde so I knew what was doable," he says. He also enlisted the help of Broadway special effects wiz Greg Meeh. "He's the best in the business. I gave him the size and location of the space, and he handled the mechanics. Greg does lots of tests out in a studio in Brooklyn to get a sense of how it will work. Then he figures out the logistics."

McSweeny adds, "We put a lot of creative energy and, frankly, resources behind trying to make sure we could bring that [burning cross] effect to life. But it was important. There's something about fire. It consumes and also purifies. For me, the play itself is like that."

Though Grisham's novel was adapted into a hit 1996 movie, it's interesting that neither Noone nor McSweeny has ever seen it. "I think my main qualification when I first took on this project was that I hadn't seen the movie or read the book," McSweeny jokes. "Because movies are so visual, I've been pretty careful about what I allow into my visual influence." But that moratorium may soon be lifted. "I've seen parts of it on late-night TV," he admits. "And I'd be fine to watch the whole thing now because at this point I've made all of my decisions!"

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Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.

Photo by Carol Rosegg