Drama Urge: Twelve Angry Men

If you’ve ever served on a jury, you’ll recall many potent reminders – probably suppressed – of that process in Director Christopher Gallu‘s naturalistic production.  Like the trial it reflects, the decision-making process that is conducted in the jury room is an adversarial one with time constraints. Though Reginald Rose’s teleplay was first written in 1954 (it later evolved into a 1957 movie and stage production in 1964, which was further revised in 1996 and 2004, after the author’s death), it still feels fresh, the necessary changes being made for gender and race.

At the outset, twelve men file onto Mark A. Rhea‘s Spartan set and Colin Diek‘s probing lighting to begin deliberations on a murder trial. The jazzy sound of designer Jake Null portends the conflicting mood.  A teenage boy has been accused of stabbing his father to death and it looks like an open and shut case, based on the attitude and comments of the jurors.  You need a unanimous vote, though, and it turns out that one person is not ready to pull the switch on this capital offense, punishable by death.  As the play develops, and personal beliefs of each of the characters emerge, the accused starts to look less guilty and more like a scapegoat.  Certainly his charge doesn’t pass muster as “beyond as reasonable doubt,” at least the way most people would understand it, if they could.

People do arrive in the jury room with their minds made up, based on my experience.  Pressure is on from the get-go to deliver a verdict and things being what they are, that is to convict.  People who look to slow the process down, to talk about the facts of the case, such as Juror Eight (the methodical Colin Smith) are viewed negatively by the group alpha dogs or wannabes (nicely captured by Mr. Rhea, Michael Innocenti, and David Jourdan).

Some of the jury room antics seem contrived, but they play well dramatically.  Switchblade demonstrations and physically combative jurors aside, the verbal assaults and snide innuendos directed to those with an opposite view ring true.  While it seems unlikely that a lone holdout, will do anything more than stay his or her course today, the slow shift toward the minority view is as entertaining as watching your just-over-.500 wild card team come out of nowhere and blaze to the title.  If you’ve witnessed consensus building in action, you’ll note that strong spokespeople can sway the tide of opinion back and forth, moving first this way, then that, sometimes with outcomes that are completely unpredictable.  I was also taken by the way doubt undermines the belief systems that these jurors possess.

Juror Eight is something of an enigma.  Mr. Smith plays him as disinterested; he arrives power suit attired, and of a higher social station than the rest of Erin Nugent‘s adroitly costumed cast.  The character is undoubtedly a stand-in for the defense and perhaps a corrective for the playwright’s own experience on a jury.  My own reading of the role – this is the first time I’ve seen it performed live – is colored by Henry Fonda’s “man of the people” grounding in the movie.  Juror Eight conveys none of that engagement, but if you understand the character as one who will step into a fight where bullies or one side has an unfair advantage, with no personal stake in the outcome (other than winning), the ending seems compelling.  This is a winner-takes-all battle between one individual against the group – King David vs. Goliath – in which the monster dies.  A test of personal courage yes, perhaps an example of an Extreme Sport, there will be no comforting the vanquished at the end, only an realization of one’s own inner worth.

Keegan’s large cast possesses a range of acting talents, but their composition is strikingly reminiscent of a cross section of the population.”

These guys look like twelve typical individuals of various physiognomies – regular folks.  Even the occasional verbal hitch feels authentic; real people stammer, stutter, and misspeak routinely.   The play starts conversationally and proceeds in an even-keeled, though slanted, manner, interrupted by confrontational outbursts that would be normal in a group decision of this stature.  For such a talky play, with minimal props and circumscribed action around a conference table, there is a nicely paced flow to the production.  People get up and move just when you expect them to.  And they break off for bonding chats or confrontations at the relevant points.

The ensemble actors are particularly convincing as types… Messrs. Rhea and Jourdan (reprising his 2001 Helen Hayes nominated supporting role) give redneck a bad name while Mr. Innocenti and Kevin Adams are mocking and imperious, respectively, in their distain.  Age, ethnicity, and disadvantage are given their due by Richard Jamborsky, Mike Kozemchak, and Andres TaleroBradley Foster Smith as a meek bank clerk and Jon Townson playing the flaky ad man are drawn from life, while Rich Montgomery as a house painter is an Everyman kind of guy.  Timothy H. Lynch has the gravitas of the assistant football coach and foreman, two middle management jobs nobody wants.

Being a juror is a curious situation.  You’re being used as a proxy group by an outside institution to deliver a judgment against an individual you don’t know (and can’t know), without having all the facts.  You’ll never be certain of the truth, only a perspective of it, but you’ll have to make a call, one that more often than not will leave you unsettled, perhaps for the rest of your life.   It’s an absurd system but one you may be thrown into for better or worse.  Just hope there are a few more like Juror Eight working with you behind the scene.

Read the full review at Drama Urge