Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2008
It is late afternoon on a swelteringly hot summer day in 1957. Twelve jurors – four women and eight men – file in to the Jury Room of a New York City court house to decide the fate of a young man accused of stabbing his father to death. Should they find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he will be executed. At the outset, the foreman (Ron Komora) polls the jury to find out where things stand, and all but one man (David Bunce) vote “guilty.” They must reach a unanimous verdict – and they do – but not until two hours of vigorous debate have transpired.
This play, which started life as a 1954 television drama entitled “Twelve Angry Men,” has been a popular vehicle in educational and community theatre for more than half a century now, so you either know exactly how it ends, or you don’t. If you don’t, I am not going to be the one to tell you because, once you know, the two hours of debate chart a highly predictable course. If you remain in suspense, the show is simultaneously enthralling and eye-opening.
We never learn the name of any of the twelve jurors, or the accused. This has allowed the play to morph from “Twelve Angry Men” to “Twelve Angry Women” and finally to “Twelve Angry Jurors.” I have no problem with changing the gender of the players, but the change of the final word from men/women to jurors is unsettling. Reading those three words “Twelve Angry Wo/Men” is exciting. Who are these people and what are they angry about? Twelve is a large enough group to wreck some havoc if they get mad enough. With that idea in mind it is thrilling when you hear the door to the Jury Room lock. What will happen to this combustive mixture of personalities?
But the word “jurors” gives half the mystery away. And anger is not really an appropriate emotion to sway a jury. In the end, of course, while they disagree and the heat and the late hour push them to some fierce confrontations, they are more exhausted and cranky than angry. Now no one would buy a title to see a show entitled “Twelve Hot and Cranky Jurors” – the idea of being shut in a hot room with a bunch of cranky strangers is no more appealing for a spectator than for a participant – but, after considering all the options, I think “Twelve Contentious Jurors” would be the most accurate choice.
Reginald Rose, who wrote the original teleplay (this stage version was adapted by Sherman L. Sergel), and Ron Holgate, the director of this production at NYSTI, are more interested in providing drama and education than answers, and this is exactly what has made this play so successful for so long. It is an excellent civics lesson on the role of the individual juror and the collective jury in the American judicial system, but it is also good theatre. With the strong cast and clear-headed direction provided here, the audience becomes deeply involved with these people, who are as anonymous to each other as they are to us, and the case.
Bunce and Joel Aroeste make powerful antagonists cast as the jurors most convinced that there is, and isn’t, reasonable doubt. Bunce plays it cool but confrontational while Aroeste is all noise and bluster. Carl Danna as the eldest juror and Yury Tsykun as the foreign-born juror provide distinctive points of view, as do Christy Lee Hughes as the youngest, and possibly poorest, juror and John McGuire as the wealthiest and most privileged.
Unfortunately the other three women are mere clichés of 1950’s females, rather than characters who contribute to the drama. Mary Jane Hansen (looking very like a young Blythe Danner in a bouncy platinum blonde wig) is a wise-cracking underling in an ad agency – remarkable as the only juror whose profession we learn – while Carole Edie Smith and Anny DeGange are merely a 50-something and a 30-something incarnation of June Cleaver.
John Romeo turns in a fine performance as the juror with the strongest prejudices. Here all the jurors are white and the race and/or ethnicity of the accused is never mentioned, but Romeo’s rant about the hopelessness of civilizing “those people” late in the second act makes it very clear that there is some major difference in class or color between the jurors and the accused. His fellow jurors reply not with words but with visible cold shoulders, and it is apparent that his forceful damnation of the accused simply because of his social status and/or race has exactly the opposite effect from the one he intended.
Not only is Holgate working with many of the actors he directed in his popular 2006 and 2008 mountings of “1776” but he is working with essentially the same set by Richard Finkelstein. I am all in favor of recycling in the theatre if it works, and here it does. The colonial-style wooden tables and chairs of the Continental Congress have been replaced with the study, nondescript furnishing common to government buildings in the mid-20th century, and the walls have been rendered a grungy shade of institutional green, but the tall windows divided into many lights retain the feel of Independence Hall in the late 18th century.
Robert Anton researched the clothing average people wore in the late 1950’s and then “found” rather than built the wardrobe. Since many “retro” styles mimic those of the 1950’s, some of the clothes are modern rather than truly vintage, and it shows in the odd way that even close imitations never really pass as the original.
The clock on the wall tells us that the deliberations last from about 4:30-6:10 p.m., and we are told repeatedly that it is very hot and humid, indicating that the month is probably July or August, but lighting designer John McLain has dusk falling towards the end of the play, which is all wrong. Now, in early October, darkness begins encroaching by 6 p.m., but in the summer months I can always get to an 8 p.m. curtain before dark.
Will Severin and 100% Sound have once again provided a score that consists of nothing but ominous crescendos on synthetic brass instruments. It may have been the set from “1776” but I felt sure the score had been recycled from one of NYSTI’s Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes productions. It didn’t fit.
As always, the intended audiences for this production are school groups, and this venerable show will do its work and introduce another generation of U.S. citizens to the joys and challenges of jury duty. If you know a young person who is going, do them a favor and don’t make them watch the movie or give away the ending ahead of time. There is a lot of fun to be had seeing this play for the first time, especially in this clearly acted and directed production, and there’s no sense spoiling what should be a revelatory and entertaining experience.
The New York State Theatre Institute production of Twelve Angry Jurors, runs through October 15 in the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours with one intermission. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children in grade 7 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008