by Lynn on June 18, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Twelve Angry Men

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Reginald Rose
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Designed by Yannik Larivee
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Richard Feren
Starring: Byron Abalos
Derek Boyes
Tim Campbell
Joe Cobden
Tony DeSantis
Stuart Hughes
Cyrus Lane
Robert Naismith
Jordan Pettle
Andre Sills
Michael Simpson
William Webster
Joseph Ziegler

This is a beautifully modulated, ultimately electrifying production of a play that still grabs you by the throat and heart 60 years after it was first written.

Background. Playwright Reginald Rose first wrote this as a television drama in 1954 for which it won an Emmy Award. He then adapted it as a film in 1957, and then as a play for Broadway in 1964.

The Story. A jury of 12 men is charged with deliberating over the fate of a 16 year old boy accused of stabbing his father to death. The judge instructs the jury that they must unanimously find him either innocent if there is reasonable doubt that he did it, or guilty if there is no doubt. Guilty would automatically mean the boy will be put to death.

In a preliminary vote eleven jurors vote for guilty with one juror voting not guilty because he’s not sure beyond a reasonable doubt. What follows is the one juror who votes not guilty using logic, compassion and reason to convince the other jurors to change their vote because of reasonable doubt and save the boy.

The Production. Yannik Larivee has designed a jury room with a long table and 12 chairs at which the men sit and deliberate. There is a door leading to a washroom at one end with a sink inside the jury room. At the other end is the door leading to the rest of the courthouse. There is a fan on the wall that does not work causing a bit of a problem, since this is supposedly the hottest day of the year. There are suggestions of windows on either side of the room. The audience sits on either side of the playing area in the middle. The weather outside suggests rain. Drips of rain drop on one side of the space; intermittently in Act I and showering to show a downpour in Act II.

The men wear suits and ties with their pants resting above the waistline as they did in the 1950s. Hair is slicked with Brylcreem or some comparable greasy product. All the jurors, except one, are white. All are Americans, except one who is from Europe. When the men enter that jury room they bring with them their prejudices, racism, misplaced anger, bullying attitudes, calm reason, ability to change and compassion.

Director Alan Dilworth uses all those variables to direct an electrifying and ultimately moving production. (A quibble. I could have done without the cheesy old-time tv music. This isn’t the television drama. It’s a play for the theatre.) The bullies like Juror 10 (William Webster) and Juror 3 (Joseph Ziegler) hitch up their pants and bellow at and condescend to those who oppose them. Juror 10 automatically feels the accused is guilty because he’s ‘one of them’ and ‘they’ are all dishonest, murderers, thieves and a danger. One might wonder to what minority Juror 10 is referring? What then would he make of the Guard who is played, beautifully, by Andre Sills, who is black. Juror 3 sees in the accused his own wayward son who has disappointed him. The misplaced anger of Juror 3 is palpable.

As unreasonable as Juror 3 and 10 are there is the quiet, thoughtful, reasoned thinking of Juror 8 who methodically asks questions, expresses his doubt, and changes minds. There is the dignity of Juror 11 (Jordan Pettle) who brushes aside racial slurs about him not being a born American because he comes from Europe, staring down his tormentors. There is Juror 9 arguing for the dignity of the aged.

The acting is wonderful. The quiet grace of Robert Naismith as Juror 9 showing compassion for an aged witness is moving. Even Andre Sills in the small part of the Guard is full of nuance and substance. As Juror 8, Stuart Hughes listens thoughtfully, without condescension, and bravely expresses his doubts. His thinking is nimble, his delivery tempered. He is no pushover. He can stand up to any bully when a boy’s life is at stake and he shows breathtaking compassion to Juror 3 when he needs it most. As Juror 3, Joseph Ziegler gives a performance that is both raging and heartbreaking. His anger at his estranged son has clouded his thinking about the accused. His humiliation at the end when he is faced with his own prejudice leaves one limp in the seat. All these men are both strong and fragile.

Comment. Writer Reginald Rose does not name the jurors, choosing instead to refer to them by their number. Juror 8 is our one dissenting voice, reasoning for not guilty. The accused is not named either but referred to as ‘the boy’ or ‘the accused’. The writing is spare, the arguments reasoned and the dramatic investment increases as the balance in votes for guilty turn to not guilty. Lines like “it’s a sad thing to be nothing” and “prejudice obscures the truth” hit to the heart of the play and the audience. Rose is writing about a cross-section of America. Alan Dilworth and his glorious cast have created a production that makes the theme universal. Beautifully done.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: June 17, 2014
Closes: July 19, 2014
Cast: 13 men
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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