Billy, Chicago Theatre Company. A ten-year-old African-American boy, Billy, is harassed by a white teenage girl in 1937 Mississippi; when he fights back, he accidentally kills her with his pocketknife. Once the sheriff finds him, he’s convicted of first-degree murder and put to death.

The narrative has rich possibilities, but David Barr’s adaptation of Albert French’s novel is unfocused, sluggish, and at two and a half hours, about an hour too long. The girl is killed too early, before we get a chance to really know her or Billy, reducing the play’s emotional impact. And the central drama is overshadowed by a multitude of minor characters, including two reporters who engage in a bizarre flirtation that seems lifted from a 1930s romantic comedy–it’s not appropriate to the play’s dark subject.

There are some strong performances, however, especially nine-year-old Denzel Henderson’s as Billy and 11-year-old Patrick Potter’s as his friend Gumpy. Michele Steele is transcendent as Billy’s mother, fixing her tired, intense eyes on a better reality she can’t reach. Woody Bolar as Shorty the narrator holds the play together with his steady, reflective, lyrical talk. When the playwright abandons this device midway through, we feel the loss.

–Jennifer Vanasco