Twelve Angry Men Remains Timely More Than Six Decades After It Was Written
Photo by Eileen Suzarez
We're a country of snap judgments. In the court of public opinion, we render verdicts with the same knee-jerk immediacy that we employ to consume news. It's all headlines and tweets. We lack the time, inclination, and attention span to go beneath the surface.
Twelve Angry Men delves deeper. Reginald Rose's 1954 classic spends two unbroken hours in a jury room -- romanticizing a legal system in which prejudices are confronted and minds are enlightened by robust debate. And given that 12 white jurors are deciding the fate of a black teenager, the play's current production at New Theatre assumes added heft in a post-Trayvon, post-Ferguson milieu of racial discontent.
But Twelve Angry Men is one of those seminal works that will feel modern no matter the year it's produced -- which is why it is revived so often. It's a forceful reminder to heed our better angels.
In New Theatre's version, the first thing we hear is the disembodied voice of a judge, tasking the jury with a position he doesn't envy -- to find a consensus on the guilt or innocence of a human life. The musical score has the sweeping gravitas of a James Cameron film, properly forecasting a production free of cynicism and reinvention but boasting some deft and original touches.
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The jurors are anonymous Everymen in proper '50s courtroom attire. They gradually take their positions on hard wooden seats surrounding a hard wooden table. Jerry Jensen is the no-nonsense foreman and Juror No. 1; Steven A. Chambers is the meek and ineloquent Juror No. 2; Stephen Neal is the aggressively loudmouthed Juror No. 3; John Dennison, donning pivotal spectacles, plays the erudite and coldly logical Juror No. 4; Gabriel Bonilla's Juror No. 5 contributes his perspective as a child raised in a violent slum; Joel Kolker's Juror No. 6 is a principled but open-minded house painter; and Bill Schwartz is the impatient Juror No. 7, his mind mostly consumed with the Yankees tickets burning a hole in his pocket.
Clinton Archambault is the courageously dissenting Juror No. 8; Gene Bunge is the elderly Juror No. 9; Glenn Hutchinson is Juror No. 10, the dyed-in-the-wool racist; Dave Corey's Juror No. 11 brings an immigrant's perspective to the jury room; and Brian McCormack's indecisive adman rounds out this eclectic and combative pool.
After pleasantries are exchanged, they take their first vote. Only Juror No. 8 possesses enough empathy to vote not guilty, delaying the verdict for what initially appears to be an open-and-shut case. An African-American teenager is alleged to have stabbed his father to death, a crime vividly heard or seen by two key witnesses. But as Juror No. 8 gradually prompts his colleagues to revisit the evidence and testimony, the case falls apart like flakes off a pastry. Some jurors change their positions, and those still convinced of the boy's guilt are unveiled as bigots and those with overwhelming personal baggage.
Despite the play's many stagings, I hung on every word, riveted by the characters' provocative suggestions and the healthy resistance with which they're met, shaking my head at the persistence of intolerance and nodding in agreement when illuminating theories find merit. Credit Rose, director Ricky J. Martinez, and this largely excellent cast.
I've seen productions of Twelve Angry Men that are more moving than this one -- in particular, the climactic explosion of Neal's Juror No. 3 isn't the tear-jerking volcano of pity it should be -- but the reason you'll feel especially connected with this rendition is the intimacy. Martinez took a gamble by presenting it in a three-quarter round, meaning audiences on each of the three sides will see the facial expressions of some actors but not others. It works. We feel as if we're in the room. Twelve Angry Men is not an interactive show, but this time it feels immersive.
This sense of absorption is bolstered by Eric Nelson's subtle lighting design, in which an afternoon slowly descends into evening. When the "natural" light slanting through an unseen window gives way to darkness, three interior bulbs switch on. In addition to the realistic rumble of thunder outside, sound designer Matt Corey is also responsible for the persistent clatter of an old electric fan, which punctuates silences and contributes to the play's sense of claustrophobia.
Unfortunately, New Theatre is one of many companies to insert an intermission into a play written without one. This disrupts the magnetic, mounting intensity for the benefit of weak bladders. But this cast is good enough to pull off the transition. Like pretty much everyone before him, Archambault gamely plays Henry Fonda playing Juror No. 8, the play's most heroic character but also its least complex: Pure moral righteousness doesn't allow for a lot of nuance.
Elsewhere, Hutchinson makes for a frightfully convincing racist, Schwartz brings an effortless tone of gimcrack sarcasm to his Juror No. 7, and Chambers is a memorably henpecked Juror No. 2. McCormack's performance as Juror No. 12 feels too studied and not as natural as his colleagues', but everybody else creates a believable, indelible, three-dimensional characterization. This is not an easy accomplishment with a dozen actors vying for self-actualization.
If this production feels a little frayed around the edges at times, well, so are these people. Line stumbles are not only understandable but also almost welcome as the sputtering indications of paradigms shifting -- and imperfect minds forever evolving.
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