They Sweat, They Swear, They Sprawl, They Stalk, and They Get Angry.
The time is present day. The defense team in a trial has just finished their closing arguments and it now turns to the jury for a decision. In form, "12 Angry Jurors," presently playing at Westminster Community Playhouse, is a courtroom drama.
In purpose, it's a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
It has a kind of stark simplicity: Twelve jurors will debate the fate of a young boy who is being tried as an adult and charged with first-degree murder. If found guilty, the accused will be put to death.
The play shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, off-stage charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is already quite a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and will soon learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it.
Fade in on a large bare, unpleasant-looking room. This is the jury room in the county criminal court of a large Eastern city. It is about 4:00 P.M. The weather outside is sweltering, one of the hottest days of the year. The room is furnished with a long conference table and a dozen chairs. The walls are bare, drab and badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Along one wall is a row of windows, which look out on the skyline of the city's financial district. One of the windows is open and Juror #4 may even be able to see his office from there. High on another wall is a large clock between two washrooms which are adjacent to the door leading into court, and in one corner is a table filled with water bottles.
As they file in, guided by the guard (Dylan Boggan; “Murder on the Orient Express”), several of the jurors take seats at the table. Others stand awkwardly around the room, some staring out the windows, trying to be unnoticed. These are men and women who are ill at ease, and who wish they were anywhere but here. It’s a room where, soon, tension will come from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where logic, emotion and prejudice will struggle to control the field. As a result, it will be a masterpiece of stylized realism — lean and mean…and your thoughts will be overwhelmed.
"It's an open and shut case," snaps Juror #3 (Lee Samuel Tanng; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic little room. When the foreman, Juror #1, takes the first ballot, 10 of his fellow jurors agree, and there is only one holdout — Juror #8 (Rose London, “Trojan Women”).
The story is based on a 1954 television play called "Twelve Angry Men" by Reginald Rose (also known for “The Defenders,” “My Two Loves,” and a classic episode of Twilight Zone called “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”) and was adapted for the stage the following year. It then became a film of the same name in 1957, directed by Sidney Lumet ("Fail-Safe," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon"). The film’s cast included only one bankable star at the time, Henry Fonda, but the other 11 actors were rising stars, including Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and Robert Webber. They smoke, they sweat, they swear, they sprawl, they stalk, and, they get angry.
Since then, it has been given numerous adaptations and stage versions, which are sometimes retitled "12 Angry People," "12 Angry Women," or "12 Angry Jurors" (as in this case), for the sake of political correctness. The jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that we feel we know as much as the jury does, especially about the old man who says he heard the murder and saw the defendant fleeing, and the lady across the street who says she saw it happen through the windows of a moving L train.
We see the murder weapon, a switch-blade knife, and hear the jurors debate the angle of the knife wound. We watch as Juror #8 imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing. In its ingenuity, in the way it balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory, "12 Angry Jurors" is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie thriller. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion.
But it is not about solving the crime. It is about sending a young man to die. And implies that some Death Row convictions could possibly be based on contaminated evidence. "We're talking about somebody's life here," Ms. London’s character says. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?"
The defendant, when we hear the description and the underlying prejudices of him, is most likely "ethnic" but is not said to be of any specific group. He could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican, Black or otherwise. Some of the discussion is winceable, especially those delivered by jurors who make veiled references to "these people." Finally, Tara Brown’s (“Best of Enemies”) Juror #10 begins an obloquy ("You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either...")
As Ms. Brown’s character continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning their back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can't sit and listen to #10’s harangue of the young litigant. The scene is one of the most powerful in the play.
The vote, which begins as 11-to-1, shifts gradually, but not without much convincing…or inconvenience. And criticisms come hot and heavy from every angle. One of the key characters is Juror #4 (Lawrence Ingalls, “Murder on the Orient Express”), a man of wealth and position, who depends on pure logic and tries to avoid emotion altogether. Another, Juror #7 (Alex Piper, “It’s Only a Play”), who has tickets to “Hamilton” later that night, grows impatient and changes his vote just to hurry things along.
Rick Werblin’s (“Murder with Absolution”) Juror #11, a courtly, patriotic refugee from Europe who defends the American way of life, criticizes #7 in broken English: "Who tells you that you have the right to play like this with a man's life?" Earlier, it was #11 who was denounced as a foreigner: "They come over and in no time at all they're telling us how to run the show."
Throughout the play, the central conflict is the tension between the prejudices of some of the other jurors and the more nuanced commitment to “reasonable doubt” upheld by the 8th Juror and—eventually—her supporters. The most consistent and dangerous form of anger in the play is prejudice, which threatens to undermine the integrity of the justice system. In standing up for the ideal of “reasonable doubt,” the 8th Juror eventually succeeds in helping most of the other jurors become more thoughtful and fair-minded in their attitudes, suggesting that the antidote to prejudice is justice and a commitment to democratic equality.
Directed with brisk straightforwardness by Jim Rice, with many of the actors only inches away from the audience, this 90-minute, one intermission show, built around the dissection of a murder, is pure bliss for fans of mysteries and drama like "Law & Order" or an Agatha Christie novel. And, it is no coincidence that Director Rice has also helmed over 100 other productions, many in like manner to “12 Angry Jurors” (“The Final Adventure of Sherlock Holmes,” “Murder on the Orient Express”).
With an ensemble led by Lee Samuel Tanng, as #3 Juror, the angriest one of all, and Ms. London as #8, this production is a showcase for some of SoCal’s finest character actors, all of whom manage to chew the scenery without smacking their lips. No one breaks or reshapes the assembly-line mold of their character. And each infuses a now clichéd type with an enjoyable vigor that persuades us that moss-covered trees still have much sap in them.
One by one, we learn their worst fears, their motivation, their temperament. Juror #1 (Chris Fine, “Shrek”), exhilarated with his new authority as referee, arbitrator, and lead juror, handles the others professionally and with purpose; Juror #2 (Mike Marmont; “And Then There Were None”), is a meek, hesitant man who never says much, but when he does, he is always very insightful.
Juror #5 (Michael Frankeny, “A Christmas Carol”), is an apprehensive man who finds it difficult to speak up when others have the floor; Juror #6 (Michael Serrato-Sanchez, “Night Watch”), is an honest man who comes by his decisions slowly and carefully; Juror #9 (Roger K. Weiss, “The Odd Couple”), comes across as a gentle man who seems a bit defeated by life; and Juror #12 (Alex Lohman, “Seussical”), is a bright advertising woman who thinks of human beings in terms of percentages.
The play's rhythms, which could almost be set to a metronome, follow a pattern of exposition, flare-ups and cool-downs, with painstaking, "Perry Mason"-style reconstructions of witness testimony, which involve props like switchblades and diagrams.
And all the while, Ms. London’s Juror #8 is forced to assume the role of a patient seminar leader, guiding her wayward pupils to enlightenment. "It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this," she summarizes. "No matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth."
To corroborate that theory, when the votes are finally cast unanimously, it is not without contempt, passion, and rage, especially from the group’s antagonist, Juror #3. But, even with his face turning a spectrum of colors and his dudgeon at the boiling point, even at the possible point of a threatening knife, #8 manages to cool down the aggressor and coerces him to accept the decision of the verdict. WESTMINSTER COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS, 12 ANGRY JURORS — An American courtroom drama written by Emmy Award winner and Oscar Nominated Reginald Rose (“The Defenders,” “My Two Loves,” Twilight Zone: “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”); Directed by Jim Rice; Assistant Directed by Meredith Miranda; Produced by J.D. Rinde; Scenic Designed by Michael Corcoran and Jim Rice; Costumes/Props by WCP Cast; Lighting & Sound Design by Bob Nydegger; Stage Managed by Dylan Boggan.
WITH: Chris Fine (Juror #1), Mike Marmont (Juror #2), Sam Tanng (Juror #3), Lawrence Ingalls (Juror #4), Michael Frankeny (Juror #5), Michael Serrato-Sanchez (Juror #6), Alex Piper (Juror #7), Rose London (Juror #8), Roger K. Weiss (Juror #9), Tara Brown (Juror #10), Rick Werblin (Juror #11), Alex Lohman (Juror #12), Dylan Boggan (Guard/Clerk).
“12 ANGRY JURORS” runs November 4th — 20th, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, and Sundays at 2PM at Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple Street, Westminister, CA 92863. Tickets range from $13-25, and can be purchased at www.wcpstage.com.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Laura Lejuwaan