On paper, a play called “A Time to Kill” does not lure you to a dinner theater. It sounds bloody and venomous, hardly fitting for bread baskets and side salads.
But there’s more than meets the eye at Desiderio's Dinner Theatre. Whatever notions you might have about what a dinner theater can and should be, producer-director Jay Desiderio often validates and extends.
Take dinner, for instance. Dependable food, made with love and abundance, presented by a personable staff with careful attention to service. The menu doesn’t break the culinary ceiling – and, by my recollection, hasn’t been updated in a while — but it’s hard to complain about fettuccine primavera ($50), chicken marsala ($56), osso bucco ($58), or wild mushroom ravioli ($52), among others, plus appetizers. All meals include soup or salad, warm bread, dessert, and the price of the show.
My veal parmigiana ($59) was plentiful and delicious. The homemade pasta fagioli boasted with perky beans and gratifying body; a good bowl of food. A scoop of strawberry ice cream was the perfect springy bite before diving into this robust play.
You’ll recognize the title "A Time to Kill" from either the 1989 John Grisham novel or the 1996 film adaptation starring Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. This stage adaptation by Rupert Holmes – which had a brief Broadway run in 2013 – is the third incarnation of Grisham’s story. It was the lawyer-turned-author’s first novel. (We can assume that the central role of Southern good-boy rookie lawyer Jake Brigance is a projected version of himself. Shades of Atticus Finch are also evident. It’s a type.)
Set in a religious, heavily racist Mississippi town in the 1980s, the politics of who is allowed to take vengeance and who is allowed to suffer is central to the play’s moral questions. The story involves the murder trial of Carl Lee Hailey, who shoots and kills the two white men awaiting trial for the rape and attempted murder of his 10-year-old daughter. He also injures a police officer.
That Hailey, who is black, chooses Brigance, who is white, to defend him – even though the NAACP has offered a legal team for free – establishes the promise of this core relationship. We’ve seen the white savior narrative many times before, but thankfully that trope’s trappings take a backseat to the issues of justice and family. These are good men, working together toward an even better result.
In general, the play has great intentions and hits most of the right moral notes. But its storytelling often loses balance between the serious and silly – comedic relief gone awry. Blame the few gimmicks on it being Grisham’s debut, such as the white judge whose last name is Noose. Holmes’s sloppy adaptation tries too hard to mimic the movie; the second act, covering Hailey’s trial, is far more focused and compelling.
Desiderio directs a large cast that delivers the goods the best they can. Kinzy Brown is powerful as Hailey, a man so distraught and pained. Brown keeps his head in the game, and delivers handily. Peter Horn is equally committed to this role, delivering a nuanced performance that, ironically, could work just as well on film as it does on this small stage. Great work from these two.
Sandra Gilliam’s brief appearance as Carl’s wife, Gwen, is so gripping in her frustration, if she broke out into song I wouldn’t bat an eye. Elizabeth Oddy, as law clerk Ellen Roark, feels out of place. She’s cheerful in the wrong places, and far too presentational alongside Horn’s internalized characterization. Strong supporting performances, too, from Marc Ruffino and in a tiny, relatively inconsequential role of court bailiff, Kenneth Leman.
"A Time to Kill"
2.5 stars (out of 4 stars)
Presented by Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre through June 30 at Bobby J's Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga. Performance days and times vary. Tickets are $50 to $60, including dinner and the show (box office, 395-3207, mybobbyjs.com).