A Split Verdict

Skipping over the actual trial, the play's main action begins when the sequestered jurors begin deliberations. Their hopes for a quick verdict are fueled by a growing impatience with living out of a suitcase, but those same hopes are threatened by the jurors' emotional baggage: Timid Hispanic housewife Teresa (Madeline Fuste) barely speaks as she struggles with both her foreman duties and her vicious ulcer; the jury's only man, Michael (Paul Tei), believes he has a special understanding of the law thanks to his attorney friends; Gloria (Kelly Balzli) hides a secret that makes her think she is the only white person on the jury able to understand racism; Debra (Carey Hart), a black woman with a master's degree and a strong social conscience, sees her race on trial alongside the defendant; Faith (Cynthia Nalley), a well-heeled newcomer to the city from Nebraska, is anxious to bring Middle American values to her new home; and Isobel (Ellen Rae Littman) is a kvetching New Yorker who views jury duty as just one more inconvenience of city life.

Frustrating any audience involvement in the defendant's guilt or innocence, Voir Dire doles out trial facts in disconnected spurts while the jurors gnaw on social issues and testimony with equal passion. Playwright Sutton is putting the entire American legal system on trial, hammering away particularly at the myth of truly impartial jurors, a theme that Tei and Balzli forcefully debate as they spar about each other's fitness to lead the group to consensus. Fuste, as a mother who can't afford medical treatment, and Nalley, as a $70K-a-year perky yuppie, do their best to flesh out cultural stereotypes. Hart has the unenviable role of voicing the dramatist's unclear opinions about what constitutes the proper verdict for a member of a race that has already endured centuries of oppression; she manages to overcome murky political musings, fashioning a credible performance of a woman torn between her rational judgment and her instinctive sympathies. Freed from having to represent anything other than a character, Littman delights as a harried urbanite who just wants to go home and get on with her life.

Director John Rodaz wisely places Sutton's legal tirades in the background, concentrating instead on the experiences of the jurors, on their reactions to the evidence and to each other. He gets able assistance from Steve Shapiro, who provides suspenseful sound design, and from Kevin Arrow and Chris Delaney, whose inventive set divides Area's minuscule stage into two distinct locales -- the deliberation room and various hotel rooms. Even though a captivating cast and tight direction create an entertaining production at Area Stage, Sutton's disappointing script reduces this legal fable's chances for future appeal.

Denial.
Written by Peter Sagal; directed by Louis Tyrrell; with Lauren Klein, Lenore Pemberton, Alan Mixon, and Dan Leonard. Through May 25. For more information call 800-514-3837 or see "Calendar Listings."

Voir Dire.
Written by Joe Sutton; directed by John Rodaz; with Paul Tei, Madeline Fuste, Carey Hart, Cynthia Nalley, Ellen Rae Littman, and Kelly Balzli. Through June 1. For more information call 673-8002 or see "Calendar Listings.

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