There have been other dramas that depict what goes on in a tension-packed jury room, but none that I can think of that match the urgent truth of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, now onstage in rotating repertory at the Asolo Rep.
The play has had a long life, starting with Rose’s teleplay back in 1954 and reverberating most notably in the film version starring Henry Fonda. Obviously, the concept of 12 men (no women on this jury) fighting to reach a life-and-death verdict for a young murder suspect is a compelling one, but what has kept Rose’s drama so viable year after year is not the “did he or didn’t he” question of guilt. It’s the way the playwright gives us our first impressions of the jurors in this case--American men of differing ages and backgrounds--and then gradually, tellingly reveals to us the personal experiences and biases of each, reminding us of the baggage we all bring to any important examination.
In this instance, the 12 men include a fairly reasonable foreman who’s a high school coach (Don Walker), a blustering bigot (Douglas Jones), a dominating man with an inner fury (James Clarke, in fine form), a quiet older man with an observant eye (David S. Howard, always interesting to watch), and an immigrant with a passion for the democratic ideals of the country he’s come to call home (John Sterling Arnold). (There’s also a broker, a male nurse, an advertising man, a guy whose main interest is getting to a baseball game on time, etc.) Different as they are, when they first enter the jury room (clearly from the 1950s in its design, right down to the shelf for the jurors to place their hats), 11 of the 12 immediately vote the defendant, a young man with a poor, minority background accused of stabbing his father, guilty.
The lone “not guilty” vote comes from Juror No. 8, played convincingly by Jud Williford. He’s not necessarily adamant about the defendant’s innocence; he’s just concerned with the issue of “reasonable doubt” and wants to be certain to take the time and ask the questions that will mean the jurors are doing their job.
In just 95 minutes of running time (with no intermission), we get to know a great deal about most of these men, and although there is a lot of dialogue here, we never find the production (expertly directed by Frank Galati) talky or dull. Far from it; as the men take off their jackets or use the bathroom sink to beat the heat, as they pace back and forth debating certain details of the case, the action unfolds with riveting clarity, leading to a justly applauded conclusion.
Initially, I felt a slight concern about the age of some of the actors, as the cast is rounded out by FSU/Asolo Conservatory students probably younger than their characters. But that was not a significant enough issue to hamper the production, which audiences both new to it and already familiar with it should appreciate.
Twelve Angry Men continues in rep through March 26; call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org for tickets.