Updated drama should provoke thought and discussion about American legal system
by Matthew Waterman, Bloomington Herald-Times, Jul 21 2014
Reginald Rose penned “12 Angry Men” in 1954 as a 60-minute teleplay for CBS, later adapting it into a stage play and a black-and-white feature film. That 1957 film, directed by Sidney Lumet, is widely recognized as the quintessential American legal drama. Six decades later, Monroe County Civic Theater presents not “12 Angry Men,” but “12 Angry Jurors” as its second show of this summer.
The traditional cast of all white men is diversified in this production, incorporating men and women of differing racial backgrounds (a warranted update from the original script). Eric Van Gucht makes his directorial debut with this show.
At the outset of the play, 12 jurors are faced with the heavy task of deciding the outcome in a murder trial. A troubled young man (who never appears onstage) is accused of patricide by stabbing. The penalty if he is convicted? Death by electrocution.
The evidence for his guilt seems overwhelming; a man downstairs heard the incident, a woman across the street saw it and the alleged perpetrator had purchased the murder weapon that very night.
Once they’re settled in, the jurors elect to take an initial vote. The foreman calls out “guilty” and eight hands shoot up … then nine, then 10, then 11. The foreman calls for “not guilty” and a lone hand is raised. It’s the hand of Juror No. 8, played sensitively in this production by I. James Torry.
“It’s not so easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first,” explains Juror No. 8.
Over the course of an hour and a half or so, the jurors spar back and forth about the case, dissecting the finest details, only to find that nothing is what it seems. Some jurors are unflinchingly stubborn, while other falter easily. The only trait they all share is a desperate need to be listened to.
Like all Monroe County Civic Theater productions, this is a low-budget volunteer effort, and the cast is composed primarily of amateur actors. In Friday night’s performance, many actors stumbled over lines and struggled with pacing. Despite these issues, all the performers displayed strong senses of their characters.
Steve Scott portrays Juror No. 3, the play’s belligerent antagonist. Scott’s performance mixes fiery rage with undertones of vulnerability, to a compelling effect. Yolanda Valdivia (Juror No. 11), Rob Hunter (Juror No. 9) and Patricia Blanchfield (Juror No. 6) also turned in laudable performances.
The decision to place the cast’s only black woman in the role of the bigoted juror is a questionable one; it feels as if the play is trying to teach us that black people can be prejudiced too. A white man using prejudice as an appeal to other white men (the playwright’s intention) would be more believable and resonant than a black woman using prejudice as an appeal to a diverse jury. Nonetheless, Whryne Reed tackled the part with impressive energy and commitment.
Monroe County Civic Theater’s courtroom (or, technically, jury room) drama is sure to provoke thought and discussion about our legal system in the United States. What exactly is “reasonable doubt”? What roles do prejudice, impatience, hard facts and personal feelings play in the life-or-death decisions made by juries? “12 Angry Jurors” won’t definitively answer these questions, but it might take us a step closer.
TWELVE ANGRY JURORS
I. James Torry & Eric Van Gucht, Co-Directors
JUROR 1 Jennifer Whitaker
JUROR 2 Kelsey Carlisle
JUROR 3 Steve Scott
JUROR 4 Bill Goveia
JUROR 5 Lydia Stewart
JUROR 6 Patty Blanchfield
JUROR 7 Ryan Thiery
JUROR 8 Aaron Hart
JUROR 9 Rob Hunter
JUROR 10 Whrynne Rasheed
JUROR 11 Yolanda Valdivia
JUROR 12 I. James Torry
GUARD Taran Snodgress