12 Talented Actors
By Dalt Wonk
DECEMBER 15, 1997: Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men is the story of a jury deliberating a case of first-degree murder. The first polling of the jury comes out 11-1 for conviction. The dissenter, Juror No. 8, does not feel right about deciding the fate of a human being so effortlessly. He wants to talk. He is not sure that he is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.
The play was written for television in the '50s, and it was made into a star-studded movie in 1957. Watching Sherman Sergel's stage adaptation, now on the boards at True Brew, one is struck by how much American attitudes have changed in the intervening years -- particularly in relation to crime.
But before discussing the somewhat problematic nature of the script, I must pause to praise director Fredrick Nuccio and his cast for the well-honed ensemble acting that lights up the stage of the intimate little theater -- where every seat is front-and-center, and every gesture is seen up close.
Cast members -- Nuccio, Linda Hubchine, Tom Dugger, Marc Belloni, Joe Iuzzolino, Kim Patterson, Michael Arata, Gavin Mahlie, Stocker Fontelieu, Tari Hohn Lagasse, Roy Dumont and Barbara Tasker -- create individualized and believable characters. And it is fascinating to watch the motives and impulses of this group carom off one another like a game of three-cushion billiards.
The true adversaries in the room are Juror No. 8 (Mahlie), the soft-spoken, forensically gifted dissenter, and Juror No. 3 (Dugger), a crusty law-and-order man who is unshakably convinced the defendant is guilty.
The alleged murderer is a 19-year-old boy accused of knifing his abusive father to death after a late-night argument. A woman who lives across the way testified she saw the murder take place, and an old man who lives downstairs said he saw the boy fleeing the scene of the crime.
To make matters worse, the boy bought a knife exactly like the murder weapon earlier that same day (he claims he lost it) and claims he was at the movies when the murder was committed (although he was unable to tell the police the name of film).
Juror No. 8 attacks each piece of incriminating testimony or evidence (sometimes by rather far-fetched deductions) and gradually wins over "the good guys" in the jury.
This panel is definitely composed of good guys and bad guys. The really hardcore, conviction-minded jurors are all coarse, low-class or -- in the case of Juror No. 10 -- emotionally twisted. Those who swing toward acquittal are mostly educated, often likable and, in all cases, decent. Then there's the interesting case of Juror No. 12, a black woman who happens to be a stockbroker and a rational thinker -- but who favors conviction.
Here we encounter the essential updating of the play, for we learn by implication that the accused is African-American. And as we approach the climax, one of the "bad guys" on the jury -- a crass woman anxious "to get it over with" -- goes into a diatribe about "those people" who are all "drug addicts" and who "don't value life."
To begin with, it's hard to imagine an inner-city jury that is almost entirely white. But even harder to imagine is this sort of diatribe right in the face of a very imposing African-American juror.
One feels very much in "Politically Correct Message Land."
Here, as in the evening in general, the cast carries the script through sheer conviction, and Barbara Tasker refuses to rise to the rhetorical bait, somehow holding firm to the understated and truthful character she has created.
If the play is biased emotionally in favor of Juror No. 8, the mood of the times is weighted against him. For we have lost our innocence about the "defense" just as surely as we have lost our naivete about law enforcement.
And while I immensely enjoyed being in the jury room with these talented actors, I can't say I left the theater with the intended glow of satisfaction about justice and the "American Way."
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