Let me say upfront that whatever deliberation I make on this play is insufficient' the material is so rich that to examine all of its merits and nuances in one short article simply won't do it justice.
The plot itself is straightforward: Sequestered in a claustrophobic room on an unusually hot and humid day in New York, twelve jurors must unanimously decide whether or not a young man did murder his abusive father and therefore deserves the death penalty.
Eleven of the jurors believe it's an open-and-shut case and that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. One juror remains uncertain. In convincing the others to give the details more careful consideration, Juror Eight initiates an impassioned debate that reveals each character's personality and deep-seated prejudices' which, if unchecked, could lead to an unjust verdict.
Reginald Rose's award-winning courtroom drama first started out as a teleplay in the 1950's and has since been produced on film, television and stage. Unlike the 1997 made-for-TV version, which was set in 'present time' and had a racial mix of jurors, the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway production stays true to its original roots as a period piece with an all-white cast.
Did it work? Without a doubt, yes. While jurors are now impaneled from a more representative cross-section of society (all races, all genders, all occupations), the play's dialogue, performance and message are as affecting and relevant today as they were when Eisenhower was president.
'This is a remarkable thing about democracy,' says Juror Eleven, a watchmaker and an immigrant to the United States. 'That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing."
And yet, in passing judgment on others, how many of us can remain objective and decide based on the strength of the facts and not of our emotions? Worse yet, given the power to decide on the fate of someone's life' the fate of whole countries, even' how many of us really take the time to confirm and analyze the details? Do we ask questions or simply take for granted that the arguments presented by others are factual and truthful at all times?
When the situation calls for our consensus, can we put aside our differences and personal beliefs to come to a solution that speaks to the problem and not to our individual agendas? Do we stand firm to what we believe is right even if it means standing alone? And if the evidence proves us wrong, are we strong enough to admit we've made a mistake and brave enough to make a change?
The play begins with the guard (Patrick New) directing all twelve jurors into the 'deliberation room.' The stage, designed by Director Scott Ellis and Set Designer Allen Moyer to look like a real deliberation room, effectively conveys the claustrophobic and uncomfortable environment where the jurors will have to make their decision. To keep the intensity of the script intact and really make the audience feel like they are part of the whole deliberation process, the entire play takes place in that single setting and runs for an hour-and-a-half without any intermission.
As most ensemble pieces go, the first few minutes of the play seem confusing as the audience gets to know each character and what they stand for. But one by one, the actors quickly make a distinct impression.
Unlike the intense and confident portrayals of his predecessors Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon, Richard Thomas takes a fresh approach to Juror Eight and comes across as more uncertain about the defendant's guilt or innocence. Alan Mandell delivers a poignant performance as the elderly yet carefully observant Juror Nine who understands what it means to be old and unappreciated.
As Juror Ten, Julian Gamble effectively portrays an overtly bigoted and belligerent man who epitomizes the very same traits for which he condemns the defendant and 'his kind.' And Randle Mell, as Juror Three, slowly peels away layers of anger to reveal a heartbroken father whose judgment is blinded by the pain and regret of estranging his son.
George Wendt (Juror One), Todd Cerveris (Juror Two), Jeffrey Hayenga (Juror Four), Jim Saltouros (Juror Five), Charles Borland (Juror Six), Mark Morettini (Juror Seven), David Lively (Juror Eleven) and T. Scott Cunningham (Juror Twelve) are equally skillful in their respective roles. And while it would have been better if the jurors' anger builds up to a crescendo instead of taking off from the very beginning and plateauing for most of the play, the overall performance is effective nevertheless.
The verdict? Reginald Rose and Scott Ellis present an unimpeachable case: Twelve Angry Men, which is on national tour and currently presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, is a play that stands the test of time. It should be seen by anyone who has ever been or will be in a position of authority, and by the people who voted to put them in their place. With democracy comes great responsibility, and this play is a statement against the ills of apathy, ignorance and prejudice. It is a play that brings the best and the worst of American democracy to light.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call the Center Theatre Group at (213) 628-2772 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org.