POSTED ON MAY 12, 2010:
A Court's Dozen
American Theatre's 12 Angry Men portrays honest and meaningful classic drama
Power of the Sword. A play like 12 Angry Men does not require reinvention or reinterpretation or modernization. It is as powerful today as it was when Reginald Rose composed it and … American Theatre Company presented a true, genuine and quality play.
Not long ago, I was summoned for jury duty. I spent two days in a windowless basement with hundreds of other Tulsa County residents, waiting for my name to be called.
When it finally was, I, along with 34 others, was ushered to the fourth floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Twenty-five of us were randomly selected to answer a long litany of questions, and, of those, 12 were chosen to serve on a jury that would decide the fate of a young man accused of armed robbery and assault.
I wasn't one of the 12. I wasn't even one of the 25. I did, though, spend four hours in that courtroom listening to my peers answer some pretty personal questions so that the judge and lawyers could weed out anyone whose prejudices would prevent them from giving the man a fair trial.
We were reminded repeatedly that the jury is the most important element of the judicial process and that, in order for us to be completely fair and effective, we would have to clear our minds of all assumptions and make our decision based solely on the evidence presented in court. Anything else was extraneous and unallowable.
It's 2010, and yet this very real scenario is the exact context for Reginald Rose's 1954 play 12 Angry Men, presented last weekend by American Theatre Company. The play continues its run this weekend.
Rose's play was inspired by his own service on a jury in a manslaughter case in New York City. Reluctant at first to serve, Rose later wrote, "The moment I walked into the courtroom ... and found myself facing a strange man whose fate was suddenly more or less in my hands, my entire attitude changed."
ATC's version of the classic play is directed by Robert Walters, whose voice can be heard at the play's opening, as a judge reciting instructions to a jury that is about to begin deliberation.
The judge reminds the jurors, as they determine the fate of a 16-year-old charged with the murder of his father, it is their job to "separate facts from fancy" and, if there is reasonable doubt at all of the man's guilt, they must find him innocent. A guilty verdict will certainly result in execution.
The day is hot as the 12 jurors, all men, shuffle into the deliberation room, occupied by a long wooden table surrounded by 12 chairs, as well as three additional chairs, a water cooler, a fan, a coat rack and a trash can.
The jurors, in order, are played by Ed Burguiere, Victor Muse, Brian Rattlingourd, Jeremy Geiger, Xavier Sagel, Andy Axewell, Nick Perez, Nate Gavin, Tom Berenson, Jeff Gaffen, Ron Friedberg and W. Bryan Thompson. Donny Bailey plays the guard.
Each man wears a suit, all complain of the heat and many complain of boredom. Nearly all have decided on a guilty verdict, claiming the case against the defendant is "obvious."
The foreman calls for a vote, and all vote guilty -- except one. Juror Eight (Gavin) justifies his not-guilty vote by saying he believes they should talk about it before sending a 16-year-old kid to the death chamber.
The others have already dismissed the kid solely because he grew up in a poor neighborhood. One said he "just feels" the kid is guilty, while another claims he's basing his opinion on the facts presented in court, without the interference of any personal feelings.
They all throw around words like "fair trial" and "facts," along with words like "assume" and "probably," the latter of which are much more accurate in describing their determination of a verdict.
Slowly, Juror Eight pokes holes in the evidence presented by the prosecution and also points out the poor job the court-appointed attorney did in defending his client.
While some of the other jurors, though in opposition to his opinion, are willing to listen to his arguments, three -- Jurors Three (Brian Rattlingourd), Four (Geiger) and Ten (Gaffen) -- are especially agitated by him. And Gavin's coolness, juxtaposed with the others' anger and excitability, make for some highly dramatic, tense and exciting moments.
It's a testament, not only to the actors' skill but also to Walters' fine direction. Walters directed the action and the pace of the play so well that, while you're essentially watching 12 guys sitting around a long table, having a discussion in real time, you're never bored. And yet, the action is never out of place.
Each step, each movement, each gesture is purposeful and meaningful. And the actors, each one of whom gave an honest and moving performance, understand that direction as well as understand the characters they're portraying.
It would be easy to rave Gavin's and Rattlingourd's performances as stand-out -- and they were, to be sure -- but, as stated, each man gave a stand-out performance. Not all portrayed characters who were as excitable as Rattlingourd's, and not all acted as the juror around whom much of the play revolved, as Gavin did, but not one man outshone another, because there was not one poor or even fair performance to be had. All were fantastic.
I also couldn't help but appreciate Walters' simple and straightforward approach to the play. Classic dramas such as 12 Angry Men remain classics, even for more than 50 years, because their themes are universal and timeless. A play like this does not require reinvention or reinterpretation or modernization. It is as powerful today as it was when Rose composed it and, recognizing that, Walters and his cast did nothing to alter it; rather, they presented a true, genuine and quality play.
In the end, Juror Eight does manage to convince the other jurors to change their minds -- not to conclude the defendant's innocence, but to admit to themselves the presence of reasonable doubt and the prejudices in their own minds that first prevented them from recognizing it.
Like most well-done plays, the journey to that conclusion is as good, if not better, than the ending itself (although, I'm happy to report, because Walters took his time with the ending, and took care not to rush it, it was quite brilliant).
12 Angry Men continues its run this weekend, May 13-15 at 8pm in the John H. Williams Theatre of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Second St. Tickets are $24-$30 and available at www.tulsapac.com.
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