‘Twelve Angry Men’

It’s easy to lose faith in the power of democracy. When oppression and ignorance and all that is grim in the world are brought to bear, it seems as though a democratic system is doomed, from the very beginning.

But, ask the ghosts of Hitler, and Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, and Khadafy, and hundreds of additional dictators, for all democracy’s awkwardness and confusion, in the long run, oppression is a losing concept.

During the coming week, Theatre for a Cause, one of our growing number of performing companies, in Jamestown, will perform a play which is both exciting, fascinating and a hymn of praise to the jury system, which is one of the basic elements of our democratic republic.

This week is our column’s anniversary. The Critical Eye is 34 years old, this week. But, while we usually devote the anniversary issue to reflection on the past year of coverage, doing so this week would mean I couldn’t tell you about ”12 Angry Men,” until too close to the performances. So, this week, let’s talk theater, and we can celebrate our birthday a bit later than usual.

Let me tell you how to go about seeing a performance of the play, then some things about the history of the play, in case you didn’t know them, or you’ve forgotten, and then I’ll share with you what I learned when I sat down with some members of the performing company, not long ago. Let’s begin with the facts, then consider the artistry later.

WHEN, WHERE, ETC.

Theatre for a Cause’s production of ”Twelve Angry Men” will be performed in a venue which has never before been the site of a production: Studio Metro is the newest theater, located within the Spire. The Spire is the former Congregationalist Church, located at 316 E. Fourth St., in downtown Jamestown.

Local playgoers are probably aware that plays and other performances have taken place in the former sanctuary of the former church, and in the large room immediately to the right of the sanctuary, as you face the building from its Third Street side.

Now, the Spire has opened Studio Metro, which is located in the part of the building which juts out toward Fourth Street. You should plan to enter from the Fourth Street door. The new space is flexible, but the company of ”12 Angry Men” is performing their production ”in-the-round.” That terms means that the audience sits on all four sides of the action, looking slightly down upon the actors, in the center.

The audience has to accept that they can see the part of the audience across the room from them, which can be a distraction, and no matter where an actor faces, his back is to part of the audience, but it also means that the actors are never more than a few feet from someone in the audience, and the involvement in the action becomes much more powerful.

Theatre for a Cause is currently in its third season of performances. The company typically chooses a cause of some type, and gives all the proceeds from their performances to that cause. Past productions – both performed at the Spire – have been ”Tuesdays with Morrie” and ”Winning Streak.” This year’s production is set to benefit the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown.

Tickets are $12 each. You may purchase them in person at the circulation desk of the library, using cash, personal check or credit cards. You may purchase tickets via computer, by typing in-spire.us into your browser. Each evening of performance, the library will express gratitude to audience members by awarding a gift to one randomly-chosen audience member.

Performances are April 10, 11 and 12, at 7:30 p.m. The cast is a mixture of veteran performers and people new to the stage, with a resulting freshness and a lively interaction which maintains interest, throughout.

The result should be an outstanding evening of both entertainment, and in celebration of the jury system.

THE SCRIPT

This year marks the 60th anniversary of ”12 Angry Men.” It was written by Reginald Rose to be an episode of the CBS television series ”Playhouse 90,” and was performed live on the air. The production drew so much favorable response that it was revised slightly to be performed as a play, by Sherman L. Sergel in 1955. That script was so well received that Sergel adapted it to become a black-and-white, feature film, which was released in 1957, to great success.

The 1957 version is to be found on virtually every list of the best films ever made, and it won Academy Award nominations for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actor, for Henry Fonda, who played the leading role.

It has been translated and adapted for performance in either films or television in Russia, Germany, India, Japan and numerous other countries. In 1997, it was filmed with a new cast, and adapted to allow for changes which would have occurred, since 1957, such as the fact that the jury room would be air conditioned, which it was not, in the original production, and smoking would no longer be allowed. The judge in that version was played by SUNY Fredonia grad Mary McDonnell. Among the writers who have undertaken to re-write the script is famed playwright Harold Pinter.

The plot concerns a jury which has been chosen for a trial in which a 16-year-old boy is being accused of having stabbed his father to death, with a knife. At the first vote, 11 jurors vote guilty, but one juror holds out, insisting that a conviction at best could destroy the young man’s life, and at worst could place him on death row, and that the jury owes a responsibility to weigh the evidence, before rendering judgment.

There is huge pressure on the lone juror, ranging from contempt and insults from other jurors to racial or social discrimination, to the fact that jurors often lose all their wages, except the very small, token payment for jury service, and those who own their own businesses may have to keep the businesses closed and risk losing customers who can’t receive service, and who can’t pay their employees, since they don’t earn anything. Some of them need badly to get out of that room.

In 1957, it was true that women rarely served on juries, although they were legally eligible to do so, but a woman need only claim that she was a woman to earn an immediate excuse from jury service. The original cast was entirely male and caucasian, and the defendant was always described as ”one of them,” although various versions have interpreted that to mean that he was African-American, Latino, Eastern European, and other possible elements which might have been suggested to have prejudiced the jurors against him. More recent versions of the script have changed the title to ”Twelve Angry Jurors,” or ”Twelve Angry People.”

Versions of the plot have been used in episodes of ”All in the Family,” ”Matlock,” ”The Family Guy,” ”The Odd Couple,” ”Happy Days,” ”7th Heaven,” ”The Simpsons,” ”Monk,” ”Perfect Strangers,” ”King of the Hill,” and ”Malcolm in the Middle,” to name just some of the television series which have used the same plot in a version which fits their own characters. Picture Edith Bunker as the one juror who holds out for more discussion, or the Fonz, or Homer Simpson.

If you’re not familiar with this classic story of our culture, you should be, and if you saw it once, years ago, it deserves to be freshened in your thinking.

THE CAST

”Twelve Angry Men” is being directed in this production by Bob Terreberry. He and Adam Hughes are the central elements of Theatre for a Cause. Hughes is serving as producer, this time, and is also playing one of the jurors. The only actor, other than the jurors, is the court bailiff who brings items of evidence which the jurors wish to examine, etc. The main actors are these:

  • Juror #1 is the foreman of the jury. He is played here by Peter Stark. His role has been played in previous versions by Martin Balsam, Courtney B. Vance and George Wendt.
  • Juror #2 is a shy bank clerk who has trouble saying what he believes when more dominant jurors start yelling. He is played here by Martin Swalboski, and the role has been played by John Fiedler and Ossie Davis.
  • Juror #3 is a businessman who is used to telling other people what to do and what to think. He is played here by Skip Anderson, and the role has been inhabited by Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott and Franchot Tone.
  • Juror #4 is a successful stockbroker whose job requires him to weigh evidence thoroughly, then to make quick decisions, in which he must have complete confidence. The role is played here by Matt Smith. It has been performed by E.G. Marshall and Armin Mueller-Stahl.
  • Juror #5 is the youngest juror, a man who has grown up in poverty, in a violent slum. He is played here by Lars Benson, and he was played previously by Jack Klugman and Dorian Harewood.
  • Juror #6 is a housepainter. He isn’t an intellectual, but he has been raised to be respectful and no amount of bullying upsets him. He is played in Jamestown by Adam Owens, and he has been played by Edward Binns and by Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini.
  • Juror #7 is a traveling salesman, used to saying whatever everyone wants to hear, in order to get what he wants. He is played by Adam Hughes, and has been played by Jack Warden and Tony Danza.
  • Juror #8 is an architect. He has been raised to respect the law and the government, and to value our way of life. He is played here by Steven Cobb, and he has been played by Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Richard Thomas.
  • Juror #9 is a man with a lot of wisdom, drawn from a long and well-lived life. He is played here by Ron Robertson, and he has been played by Joseph Sweeney and Hume Cronyn.
  • Juror #10 is a garage owner who is filled with prejudices and who doesn’t feel a need to think things through, just to act on what he already believes. In Jamestown, he is portrayed by Vince Joy Jr. Other actors to play him have been Ed Begley, Edward Arnold and Mykelti Williamson.
  • Juror #11 is a jeweler, used to taking his time and avoiding the slightest error, if at all possible. He was born in Europe, and is a naturalized citizen who knows from personal experience what it is to live in a world where juries aren’t allowed to evaluate government evidence. The actor who portrays him in Jamestown is Uriel Ben-Itzhak, and he has been portrayed by George Voskovec and by Edward James Olmos.
  • Juror #12 is an advertising executive whose life involves around making a case for something, regardless of how he really feels about it. In Jamestown, he’ll look a lot like Mike Centi. In past incarnations, he has been played by Robert Webber and by William Peterson, of CSI fame.

IN PERSON

I visited the site of the coming performance to meet a large room full of actors who have come to rehearsal early, to tell me about their production.

The first person I talked with was Adam Hughes. ”Shortly after we finished ‘Winning Streak,’ last year, we were contacted by the library and asked if we would be willing to do a production to assist them. I wanted to do a play that had literary merit – something people would associate positively with the library, and was a good fit. This script just jumped out at me. It really draws the audience in, and keeps the actors on their toes, too,” he said. ”My first concern was that it can be hard to find men to act in plays, especially in small towns, but we cast it very well. There isn’t one who I would consider less than an excellent choice for his role.”

Director Terreberry said that he has been strongly directive that his actors not study any of the major films of this script. ”We want each actor to make his character part of himself, and not just to imitate a movie actor. If Jack Lemmon or George C. Scott did something, that doesn’t mean that same action or emphasis would work for our actors.”

Lars Benson, a student at JCC, is playing Juror #5, the youngest juror. He expressed his interest that the play has no scene changes. Like the jurors, the audience is in one room and they have to attend to what’s going on and can’t just sit back and let other people take action for them.

Peter Stark, who plays the jury’s foreman, said that his character isn’t used to authority. He feels he has been elected foreman because the likely candidates feel too much rivalry with one another, and he has trouble controlling some of the showboating which the livelier jurors tend to do. ”I think he grows, though, as he steps up to the responsibility which has been placed on him to make a decision about another man’s life.”

Several of the men said they felt better about our legal system, after walking in the actual shoes of people who are living a trial. Many admitted they would be tempted to try to find an excuse not to serve, if they actually got a summons to serve on a jury, but that the play had made them see how important it is that people don’t try to dodge their responsibilities.

Steven Cobb is a young man, so I was surprised when I asked if any of them would change roles, if given the chance, and he said he would like to play Juror #9. ”That guy is old and frail, but he reaches into himself and finds the strength and the courage to stand up to people who are yelling at him and coming close to literally pushing him around. I’d like to try and find that strength,” he said.

Hughes pointed out that he is thrilled at how theater has grown in our community. ”When I was in school, once you left high school, if you wanted to do theater, there was JCC and there was Little Theatre, and that was all,” he said.

Terreberry added that he has admired performances by the Winged Lion Players, by the Gurney Players, and by all the other companies which are now performing, while theater at JCC and at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre remain strong. He feels it is a healthy and happy situation, and he hopes that young people growing up will understand that the arts are an option for them, in addition to academics and athletics.

In the 60 years since ”12 Angry Men” was first written, the world has come to realize that women can participate as reasonably as men, that people of other races and other religious backgrounds and people who are young and who are old and who may have been born on other continents can all be good citizens – and bad ones – depending on the choices they make. Come and enjoy an evening of excitement at the Spire, and help the library, while you’re at it.