12 ANGRY MENBy Reginald Rose; Adapted by Sherman L. Sergel
Richardson Theatre Centre
Director – Rachael Lindley
Stage Manager – Leigh Wyatt Moore
Set Design – 11th Hour Gang
Lighting Design – Wyatt Moore
Sound Design – Rusty Harding
Costume Design – Cast and Crew
Foreman – Ted Strahan
Juror 2 – Charles A. Alexander
Juror 3 – Michael Baker
Juror 4 – David Kelton
Juror 5 – Jacob Catalano
Juror 6 – Gary Anderson
Juror 7 – Steve Benzinger
Juror 8 – Robert Banks
Juror 9 – Budd Mahan
Juror 10 – Michael Wiseman
Juror 11 – Audie Preston
Juror 12 – Nicholas Tischer
Guard – Jay Epps
Reviewed Performance: 3/23/2019
Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
That all came back to me as I saw 12 Angry Men at Richardson Theatre Centre. The action is nothing more than a jury deliberation. But the drama is in how each juror ends up with his own motivations on trial. Prejudice, mistrust, regrets – all go into the mix as these 12 complicated men try to reach a consensus. That’s their task on this hot summer afternoon in a New York City jury room, circa 1957: render a unanimous verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty” in the trial of a teenager accused of killing his father. The kid’s life hangs in the balance; a guilty verdict will send him to the electric chair. First written as a television play by Reginald Rose in 1954, the story is no less relevant today. After all, these 12 angry men are white; the defendant is not.
Reginald Rose (1920-2002) was one of those voices that created the school-of-life genre, part of the first Golden Age of Television from the late 1940s through the 1950s, marked by such dramatic anthologies as Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90, and CBS’s Studio One, for which Rose wrote the play. Prone to explore controversial social and political issues, he spun off one of his Studio One episodes into the weekly courtroom drama The Defenders, which one two Emmy awards.
It was Rose’s own courtroom experience that inspired 12 Angry Men. As quoted by the Internet Movie Database, Rose remembered, “I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room. I was writing one-hour dramas for Studio One then, and I thought, wow, what a setting for a drama.” That seeded the teleplay that became a stage play in 1955 and a film in 1957 starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and other giants of early television. If you’ve seen the iconic film (nominated for three Academy Awards and put on a half dozen American Film Institute 100 Best lists, including No. 2 Courtroom Drama), you might be tempted to recall it during the RTC production and may find yourself matching these actors to those from the film. But no need. Just sit back and let these 12 talented actors pull you into their stormy orbit.
Ensemble acting is so satisfying when it really works, and it does in this production. Director Rachael Lindley has assembled a cohesive group of actors who bring the motley crew of characters – a cross section of 50s-era middle class males – to life. Each has his own reason to get on with it, whether it’s a conviction of guilt or Yankees tickets burning a hole in his pocket, and right away 11 of 12 are ready to turn in a “guilty” verdict. But Juror 8 (Robert Banks) dissents, saying, “It’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” So sets up the heated debate wherein talking becomes shouting, and several jurors expose their own guilt of bias.
Banks is a thoughtful, level-headed Juror 8. His character, an architect, sees a bigger picture. Maybe the evidence isn’t conclusive. Maybe there’s a reasonable doubt. He bears the weight of his conscience and courage from the minute he enters the room. It’s clear he knows he stands alone, even before the first vote is taken.
Butting against this stoic disruptor are two loud-mouthed antagonists, Juror 10 (Michael Wiseman) and Juror 3 (Michael Baker). Each digs in further as the “reasonable doubt” argument gains credibility. Wiseman plays Juror 10 with robust velocity, working himself up to a mouth-frothing racial tirade that explodes with venom. Baker as Juror 3 has his own personal breakdown. Bitter disillusionment over his son’s estrangement drives him to violence, and Baker’s grief-fueled rage is palpable.
Other jurors arrive at their conclusions toting their own baggage. Steve Benzinger nails the wisecracking cockiness of Juror 7, the gum-chewing salesman who has better things to do than sit in a jury room and seal another person’s fate; he’s got tickets for that evening’s Yankees game. David Kelton as Juror 4 is suitably stiff as the stockbroker. He’s too superior to sweat like the other guys, and his views are emotionless; he’s simply weighing the evidence like it’s a buy-or-sell decision. The only distraction is his Southern accent, as the play’s setting is a New York Court of Law.
Balancing out the hotheads (Jurors 3 and 10) are more civil characters (though they’re all angry). Juror 6 (Gary Anderson) comes across as a decent, fair-minded working-class guy who’s quick to defend a fellow juror being picked on by Juror 3. Anderson plays him with sympathy and heart. The one insulted is Juror 9 (Budd Mahan), a quiet, elderly man who only speaks when he has something important to say. Mahan shows him to be dignified, intelligent and more observant than most. Speaking of dignity, the only foreign-born character, Juror 11 (Audie Preston), has the highest respect for Democracy of the bunch and delivers an eloquent lecture on why his peers should take their job seriously. Juror 5 (Jacob Catalano) has natural empathy for the defendant, having grown up in the slums and, while he isn’t eager to jump into the argument, has an instructive point of view. Juror 12 (Nicholas Tischer) is a young ad man who seems confident on the surface, until he can’t make up his mind. The hapless foreman (Ted Strahan) is a high school football coach who keeps trying to get his team under control, with Strahan maintaining honest exasperation throughout the ordeal. That leaves Juror 2 (Charles Alexander), who’d rather not be there, or say anything, or disagree with anyone. Alexander has Juror 2’s wimpy personality down to every shrug.
The 11th Hour Gang’s set recreates the unadorned jury room and arranges the jurors along a wide, inverted “V” somewhat resembling Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” You’ll have to pay attention to keep the jurors’ numbers straight. Wyatt Moore’s lighting and Rusty Harding’s sound design create all the right effects.
On the whole, 12 Angry Men keeps you engaged and wondering how it turns out, even if you already know. The characters are real, even the exaggerated ones, and the plot reminds us why jury duty can be so stressful and what’s really at stake. No wonder so many of us try to get out of it. When you do get picked, you know you’re about to make a decision with real consequences for other people. For me, there’s comfort in knowing that even for cases that don’t seem to have a satisfying conclusion, at least we’re doing our best.
Richardson Theatre Centre
518 W Arapaho Road, #113, Richardson, TX 75080
Runs through April 7, 2019
Tickets: Call 972-699-1130 or visit richardsontheatrecentre.net