review: twelve angry men

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-TWELVE.html]

TWELVE ANGRY MEN

by Reginald Rose
Directed by Scott Ellis
Roundabout Theatre and Broadway in Chicago
at the LaSalle Bank Theatre
18 W. Monroe Street / (312) 902-1400
www.broadwayinchicago.com
Through February 11, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 31, 2007

Just a week or so ago, this same marvelously restored theatre was home to the cloistered interior garden of a religious community and the theatrical magic of Cherry Jones and her colleagues in the traveling production of “Doubt“. Now, the stage of the LaSalle Bank Theatre features a well-worn and functional municipal building’s jury room in lower Manhattan. Grimy windows, exposed wiring conduit, a suspended florescent lighting fixture, and taped blinds that are not retro but real time. This is Jury Room 2A and it really is 1954. Our twelve jurors enter heralded by a jazzy trumpet solo and lonely piano, to decide the legal fate of a young man who has been accused of murdering his father. By the time this intermission-less 100 minute deliberation period is over, we understand at least as much about the men in this room as the youth whose fate they deliberate. This is taut and fabulous theatre.

The two best known faces in the fourteen person cast (including a 12-man jury, a guard who checks in on the deliberating crew and the recorded voice of Robert Prosky as the Judge delivering the tail end of his jury instructions) are fabulous in their roles and are merely part of the ensemble. Juror Eight is Richard Thomas (once and forever “John Boy Walton” to millions), an architect, the initial hold out for “not guilty” in the quick first vote, and a role known to most as played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film of the original 1954 play for television. George Wendt (beloved Norm in “Cheers“) plays the beleaguered jury foreman who valiantly attempts to organize the fragmented slice of American voting society around the jury room table. Our 2007 eyes need to accommodate the glare of the sea of white and male faces that populate this 1954 play. When we do adjust our eyesight, we find among the ten additional jurors, in roles as written and performances as delivered, a fabulous ensemble experience. You may be drawn into the theatre to greet Norm at the Cheers bar or to wish John Boy a “good night”, but it is this ensemble and the beauties of this production that will rivet you.

The clock on the jury room wall starts along with the play. It is 4:40pm on a steamy summer day in un-air-conditioned 1954 Manhattan. Sweat stains soak the backs of almost every character’s shirt and coat. After preliminary character establishing dialogue, the jury first vote at occurs at 5pm by the stage clock and we’re off on a swiftly paced adventure. By 40 minutes into the play, the relentless pace begins to disturb me. Where are the spaces between the speeches? I then realize that the audience and these characters were on a meticulously timed and well-honed 100 minute ride. And it is soon clear that the director and the actors do indeed find those little contemplative spaces at the edges of conversations and sometimes at the literal edges of the room during breaks and the ride takes over. This production is full of emotion and human interaction. It is not all one big debate around a table — though there it is, that table, looming, with chairs all around it and, yes, there are long sections in which half the cast has its back to the audience. But it works.

There are a number of gems among the solid ensemble members. Juror Four (Jeffrey Hayenga) is familiar, lanky, educated, logical, provides a counterpoint to Richard Thomas’s educated questioning man. Juror Three (Randle Mell) is the most angrily vocal of the initial majority of jurors who are convinced of the defendant’s responsibility for the crime at the center of the trial. “You lousy bleeding hearts, you’re not going to intimidate me!” And Juror Nine (Alan Mandell) is fabulous as our reasoned, observant, quiet and wise older, and has some of the play’s best lines. For example, to our most belligerently bullying character he says early on “It suddenly occurs to me that you must be an ignorant man.”

This is a play about human nature and about the urban United States at a specific historical time. This is also a general story about the legal concept of “reasonable doubt” and the jury system and how a group of Americans who have nothing else in common other than being white, male, American, and legally obligated to serve represent this tradition. This is a play about a day of American justice, a day in the courtroom and the jury room. This is not a mystery story or in fact a story about the defendant in the trial. This is masterfully crafted dialogue, delivered beautifully by a talented group of actors who tell us a human, moving, and beautifully staged story.

Occasionally I was surprised to hear “ahs” of shock at plot and character developments, as I assumed the world knows the 1957 movie well. This reminder of the joys to be found in experiencing this story for the first time led me to hold back essential plotting details from this review – see the play to hear the story. Yet I also realized while watching this that, regardless of whether a person enters the theatre knowing the nuances of this story, the pacing of this production and the clarity and grace of this script will overtake you.

Set design by Allen Moyer is realistic and striking and powerful. Lighting by Paul Palazzo captures summer evening sun, the nuances of a sudden thunder shower and other sights of lower Manhattan. Brian Ronan‘s sound design and original compositions by John Gromada resonate long after the curtain comes down. Among the final sounds through the open jury room windows are passing cars through the post rain shower wet pavement below. Stunning. 100 minutes of charm. A glimpse of history and a civics lesson at once. A human story and a well told theatrical tale. Beautiful.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 31, 2007)

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