In 1989 a Mississippi lawyer named John Grisham published his first novel, “A Time to Kill,” that was so successful that he was emboldened to quit the law to write full time.  Twenty-eight novels later he is still going strong.

In 1996 the novel was produced as a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Spacey, and each of them is still going strong as well.

And in 2011 “A Time to Kill” was adapted into a play by Rupert Holmes that opened at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and went on to Broadway two years later.

In my view, however, the very best presentation of Rupert Holmes’ gripping play is the one directed by Ronnie Marmo that is currently on stage at Theater 68 in North Hollywood.

Marmo’s production engages 17 extraordinary actors in a horrific courtroom drama based on events that had actually taken place in Mississippi in 1984.  As the story unfolds, it tells of a 10-year-old black girl, innocently walking home from the grocery store one afternoon, who was assaulted and repeatedly raped, beaten, and left for dead by two drunken hoodlums who then rode off to a nearby bar to brag about their adventure.

Brought to trial by a sympathetic judge (a marvelously congenial John William Young), the two perpetrators (Christopher Kelly and Stephen Wu) are remanded to custody pending sentencing.  But as they leave the courtroom they are accosted by the young girl’s distraught father, who fatally shoots them.

In a small self-righteous Southern community like the fictional Clanton the verdict against the father, Carl-Lee Hailey (a pathetic and angry Derek Shaun) would seem inevitable.  Especially since Hailey has confessed to the murders.  Offered a pro bono defense by two lawyers from the NAACP,  Hailey instead chooses a fledgling local lawyer named Jake Brigance (whom Grisham introduces again and again in a series of later novels).  Brigance in this rendition is played by Ian Robert Peterson, whose anguished uncertainty and passion make you want to rush onstage and give him a reassuring hug.

Brigance’s adversary is a polished district attorney, Rufus R. Buckley, who has ambitions to run for Governor.  As played by Gregory Thirloway, Buckley is a terrifyingly confident prosecutor who winks at the jury when he finishes his perorations.  The jury, of course, is played by the audience.

Even the Bible becomes part of the argument as Carl-Lee insists that “What I did was right!” and quotes Ecclesiastes 3:13: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die…a time to kill and a time to heal.”  To which Buckley responds, “That’s blasphemy from a man facing the death penalty!”  And to emphasize the point, the scene ends with a huge burning cross planted outside the courtroom by the KKK.

The play is replete with unexpected twists and turns, memorable characters, and meaty dialogue, but its major strength comes from Ronnie Marmo, who directs the action at a pace that doesn’t lapse for a second.  With 17 actors moving in military-like precision, the furniture onstage is rearranged for each scene change in less than a minute, accompanied by  lively music that brightens the grayout.

And even though Carl-Lee has admitted to the murders, in the end Brigance defends him with an impassioned speech that could have been delivered by Atticus Finch.  As Brigance’s assistant (Mercedes Manning)   notes, “You didn’t defend Carl-Lee as a black man, you defended him as a human being.”

In racist Mississippi at that time that was a pretty risky thing to do.

“A Time to Kill” will be performed in the beautiful newly refurbished Theater 68, at 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through Jan. 28, with an additional performance on Thursday evening, Jan. 26.  For tickets, go to www.plays411.com/time to kill.

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