The Twelve Angry Men in the jury room. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas
Twelve Angry Men is about a jury trying to decide on the guilt or innocence of a young man charged with murdering his father. The trial is over and the jurors have heard the evidence as well as arguments by counsel. They are sent to the jury room to deliberate but eleven of the twelve men are convinced of the defendant’s guilt and are prepared to send him to the electric chair. One of them has some questions that he wants answered.
You may have seen the 1957 movie with Henry Fonda and know the basic plotline. The Soulpepper production directed by Alan Dilworth will erase all memories and you will feel as if you are seeing this outstanding play for the first time.
The production is staged in the Michael Young Theatre in a small playing area in the centre with seats for the audience on each side. The raised playing area has a table and a dozen chairs. The audience feels as if they are sharing the heat and perspiration of the hot day on which these men are locked in a room to decide on life and death. Let’s start with kudos for Dilworth and Set and Costume Designer Yannik Larivee.
The characters of the twelve men are methodically revealed as the evidence is dissected and arguments reach blazing levels. The jurors are remarkably diverse and distinct individuals. Some strong characters and some weaklings see their convictions shattered in the face of questions raised about the evidence but, more importantly, upon perceiving the true character of some of the other jurors.
In the beginning, Juror #8 (they are not given names) is the sole dissenter and he has to face some extremely vocal and abusive opposition from the other jurors. Stuart Hughes stands his ground with a combination of strength, mild but firm persistence and resistance. A superb performance.
His opposite is Juror #3 (Joseph Ziegler), a blustering bully with an unshakeable conviction of the defendant’s guilt. Ziegler gives one of his finest performances. His private pains are transferred against the defendant. Only in the very end is he forced to finally raise a mirror to his deficiencies and change his vote.
Tim Campbell as Juror #4 is well-spoken rational, considerate, logical and dangerous in his arguments about the defendant’s guilt. His arguments are supposed to be based on the evidence and not on some emotional basis. Campbell delivers a sustained and marvelous performance.
On the obverse side of #4 is Juror #10 (William Webster), a diseased racist representing the most frightful part of American society. Webster sweats, bellows and blusters in favour of a finding of guilt no matter what the evidence until he finally reveals his complete depravity. It is a turning point in the play.
The one disappointment is Jordan Pettle as Juror #11. He is supposed to be a European who knows what lack of freedom means and what American democracy stands for. With an ill-becoming mustache, an awkward not to say inept accent, he is just plain miscast in the role. Soulpepper has many other actors who could have filled the role and it’s a mystery why Pettle, who usually does excellent work, got saddled with the part.
There is a fascinating array of people presented with exemplary ability by a fine cast. The emotional climaxes reached are cathartic. Dilworth has defined each character with precision.
Twelve Angry Men has a great deal to say about the jury system (critical and laudatory) American society, and people caught in a tense situation where they have to make a tough decision. The play has the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action for those interested in such things.
However you take it or whatever you get out of it, you will have a riveting and highly stimulating night at the theatre.
Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose opened on June 17 and will run in repertory until July 19, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca