The grand-daddy of all courtroom dramas, Twelve Angry Men began as a 1954 television play, was expanded into a stage version in 1955 and became an Academy Award-winning screenplay in 1957. In 2007, Twelve Angry Men was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
Now, the George Street Playhouse has mounted a taut, thriller-like production of this venerable play that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout most of the play's 105 minutes. Somehow, the script had more relevance than it might have had in the past since, after deliberating for three days, the jury in the Darhun Ravi trial delivered a guilty verdict on Friday for 14 of the 15 charges. Of course, Ravi won't be sentenced to the electric chair, as the unseen defendant in the play could be, but the notion of convicting a young man without much deliberation is chilling.
A 16-year-old boy is on trial for the first-degree murder of his father, a charge which carries a mandatory death sentence. The twelve men serving on the jury have been instructed by the judge on the gravity of their deliberations, saying that if there is even the slightest doubt in their minds as to the defendant's guilt, they must acquit. In the very first vote, taken but moments after they have entered the jury room, results in 11 men believing the boy is guilty ; one, Juror 8, is unconvinced and asks the others to persuade. The single dissenter sows a seed of reasonable doubt, causing the others to reconsider their decision.
Throughout their deliberations, the men do not even call each other by name—they don't know their individual names—but as time passes, they reveal more about themselves and learn more about each other than they ever bargained for.
Because we too don't know the characters by name, we are forced to listen carefully for clues of their own personal backgrounds and personality quirks. Esther Arroyo's costumes help a great deal to delineate character, even more than costumes usually do. For instance, Juror 4 (far right in photo), a stockbroker, wears a beautifully tailored navy blue suit over his slim body, with a pocket square to complete the outfit, unlike the rather shapeless off-the-rack suits worn by several other jurors (#8 most notably). Too, he never removes his jacket (keeping it buttoned up) despite the sweltering heat. Juror 11, an immigrant watchmaker, is dressed more formally than the others in a three- piece suit, a watch-chain and a bow-tie. The sweat staining the shirt front and underarms of portly Juror 10 are perfect for the group's blowhard; Juror 6, a house painter, is casually attired in a short-sleeved sport shirt worn outside his pants.
That the 12 jurors are an ensemble is evident in David Saint's tight direction; there is never a break in the mounting tension as the minutes slowly tick by. Every one of the actors turns in a stellar performance. Gregg Edelman (far right in photo) is superb as Juror 8, who doesn't "find it easy to send a boy off to die" by a vote taken only five minutes after arriving in the jury room. His stubborn, yet quiet, manner brings a gravitas to the proceedings, and as the votes proceed, we root for him to change the other men's minds. David Adkins' Juror 4 projects an air of executive confidence that the boy is guilty; he presents the most cogent arguments. Jonathan Hadary (Juror 10) argues the immigrant's point of view that justice should not be meted out quickly in the land of the free; he's especially persuasive as he wonders why the boy returned to the apartment three hours after committing the crime. Terry Layman (taking over just before the show’s opening from David Canary, who had to drop out of the cast for personal reasons) was convincing as the oldest juror, who out of all the men understands the motivation of an elderly witness whose testimony could send the boy to death. David Schramm's arrogant bloviator who calls the boy (and all people who live in the projects) "trash," "born liars" and "those people." His violent confrontation with Juror 8 was really scary. And James Rebhorn (right, being held back) is excellent as Juror 3 whose troubles with his own son makes him quickly judge the young man on trial. On the wrong side of the argument until the final minutes of the play, he keeps the tension ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level for most of the play.
Jim Bracchita as the jury foreman tries mightily to keep order but he's in over his head. As the advertising man who's Juror 12, John Bolger gets most of the laughs as he incongruously tosses around ad jargon when attempting to make his point. Scott Drummond's nerdiness as Juror 2 makes him an easy target for the more forceful Juror 3; when he finally finds his "voice" and stands up to the older, taller man, he’s impressive. Juror 7 is anxious to get to the baseball game he has tickets for, so Jonathan C. Kaplan's lack of interest in the proceedings is appropriate to the young sports fan he portrays. Michael Sirow is convincing as Juror 5, a product of an environment similar to the defendant's, and Lee Sellars's Juror 6, the house painter, slowly comes around to changing his vote. Both are fine in these minor, yet important, roles.
R. Michael Miller has given us a grimy, grim jury room with dirty tan walls, tall windows and a non-working fan; a turntable lets the scene extend into the adjacent men's room. Christopher J. Bailey's lighting design telegraphs the passage of time and the arrival of a storm; he also provides city sounds and the storm's thunder and pelting rain for further verisimilitude. Rick Sordelet's fight direction is natural and fluid. And even though no dialect coach is listed, the men sport varying degrees of a natural New York accent as befits their education and social station.
I used Twelve Angry Men in my middle school English classes for years, to great success, showing that the play is accessible to all ages. At the performance I attended, no one in the mature audience moved for the entire 105-minute length. In an era when we've done away with the death penalty, it's easy to think that jury deliberations aren't as important as they once were. Given the outcome of the Ravi case, we can see that the decision to send a person to prison for even a decade is not lightly taken.
Twelve Angry Men will be performed at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through April 8, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM (no 8 PM performance on March 22), Sundays at 2 PM and 7 PM (no7 PM performance on April 8). Additional matinees are scheduled for Thursdays, March 22 and April 5, at 2 PM, and Saturdays, March 24, 31 and April 7 at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call 732.246.7717 or visit online at www.GSPonline.org.
All photos by C. Charles Erickson.