NORTHERN STAGE presents “TWELVE ANGRY MEN,” the timeless drama by Reginald Rose, directed by Malcolm Morrison, at the Briggs Opera House, 5 South Main Street, White River Junction, Now thru October 20. Performances Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5:00 p.m., plus Thursday, Oct. 17 at 2:00 p.m.
(This story was first published in the October 10, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Harriet Worrell
Special To The Standard
Humans have long been smitten with fictional mysteries on page, stage and screen. We are particularly intrigued by trial dramas that invite discovery of clues and information revealed in a criminal case after a legal parade of judge, officers of the court, prosecuting and defense lawyers, assorted witnesses, perhaps a small court audience and the accused does a song and dance before a jury. In America in 1954, a 12-member jury would ultimately withdraw into a separate room to deliberate and vote for innocence or guilt. Most trial dramas don’t show us the jury room or what happens there, but on September 20 of 1954, a live air drama called “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Rose was shown to the American public on the highly respected CBS Studio One series. It instantly captured the public imagination as a dozen characters with distinctive personalities and backgrounds —all Americans — filed through a door marked “Jury Room” held open by the bailiff.
Jurors were not allowed to use personal names but provided memorable identities by way of assigned numbers and countless little personal revelations in the non-descript, utilitarian room with 12 chairs pushed up to a long wooden meeting table. There was a ceiling fan that didn’t work; a glass jar water dispenser with paper cups; a door to a much used bathroom; a standing metal radiator; a fire extinguisher; a couple of spare chairs and a deacon’s bench. We believed it was hot. As jackets came off and handkerchiefs mopped brows, we believed they were sweating. Under these conditions designed by Dan Kotlowitz, they would deliberate over a teen-aged boy accused of stabbing his father and killing him.
The play is underway with a quick first round of anonymous balloting. Eleven of the jurors think the court event proved an obvious “guilty” decision; a single juror (No. 8, Jamie Horton) is not sure. The play takes up the concept of “reasonable doubt,” and the battle begins.
At Northern Stage Theatre in White River Junction, a similar “Jury Room” door held open by a bailiff (Andy Gay) welcomes a new ensemble of jurors in a live stage performance of “Twelve Angry Men” (showing now through Oct. 20). Northern Stage has chosen a smart, popular piece, tightly written, that quickly takes hold of a crowd. The play has had several stage resurgences since the original television presentation that was quickly followed by a memorable film version with charged performances by extraordinarily fine actors such as Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. The most recent of these has been in the last eight to 10 years when regional theaters (which have a way of prompting each other until everybody’s doing it) re-wired the explosive moments of high tension and well-paced story telling in Rose’s drama and sprinkled its petals in theaters across the country.
It is a play that shows off good actors. All 12 must be strong. Northern Stage has fulfilled that necessity. Highly credentialed in assorted ways, their performance journals are filled with prestigious lists of roles and theater where they have honed their art form.
We reap the reward of their work that may have been honed for a lifetime like Kenneth Kimmons, Juror No.9, to a younger student of acting as a lifetime sport like Chris Herbie Holland, Juror No. 5, or Zachary Brown, Juror No.12.
These are special men on the stage in this production and it would do them dishonor by picking favorites. There is a strong performance of an angry, bigoted and bitter man (Juror No. 10, Keith Hamilton Cobb) held back behind smiles and snickers; there is a nervous, gun-chewing salesman hiding from decision making in small talk and baseball scores (Juror No.7, Eric Bunge); there is someone who doesn’t want to take serious action on behalf of others but rises to the occasion when demeaning cruelty raises its head right in front of him (Juror No.6, David Anzuelo). There is an eagerness to be elsewhere by opportunistic vacillating ( Juror No.12, Zachary Brown) and the weariness of a man who struggles to hold on to order and avoid chaos (Juror No.1, Jarvis Green). Among the jurors is youth hiding in saying less and hesitancy to reveal his background (Juror No.5, Chris Herbie Holland). There is the cautious if not timid man painfully unable to articulate his opinions( Juror No.2, Sean Kaufman) and a gentile man who sees too closely the end of his life at hand but takes a stand(Juror No.9, Kenneth Kimmins). There is the well spoken, near arrogant in confidence, slick and emotionless commentator (Juror No.4, Kurt Zischke). We know controlled soft spoken questions from one who acknowledges the study and importance of all parts in a person or a system (Juror No.8, Jamie Horton) and experience suppressed desire, guilt, quick rage (Juror No.3, Christian Kohn). There is the sweet and simple sound of justice and honest indignation (Juror No.11, John Shuman).
A second necessity for a successful production of “Twelve Angry Men” requires a resolute director who can carefully stage and weave stories so that the members of the jury are exposed through confrontation as details slip out with and without intention. The stories tend to bounce among and off of each with the speed and energy of steel orbs in a pinball machine. Infinite pacing. That’s a high church job for a director. Malcolm Morrison, well chosen, kept it together and tended to the rise and fall of an ever changing tempo that sprang from juror reaction to perspiration covered tough questions, indignation at inconvenience, uncovered prejudice and unwillingness to change — a quartet of conditions that run rampant (and incidentally seem akin to current political conditions).
This is a play with questions.
A lot are about ourselves as a country and the promises made to the citizenry about the judicial system. An audience member — or perhaps we can call you a jury — may have to question how easy it could be to give up integrity and thinking all the while attempting to justify the actions with shabby, trivial motives completely dry and void of justice. Immigrants may see things more clearly. Maybe we fear them for that.
A play of consequence done well should be seen, supported, absorbed, talked about. “Twelve Angry Men” has all that going for it. Enjoy your evening at Northern Stage.
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