Saturday, September 7, 2019

'Twelve Angry Men' kicks off Indiana Repertory Theatre's 48th season

The jury gathers under a guard's watchful eye to begin deliberations.
Part of the satisfaction in detective fiction is that matters not obvious from the apparent facts of a crime will become glaringly clear, thanks to clever sleuthing.

When putting together the puzzle is a collective matter sanctioned by the rule of law, anyone taking in the story gets a double satisfaction: the revelations amount to a happy resolution plus our faith in the judicial system gets reinvigorated. When ratiocinative justice meets official justice, what could be better for our civic health? Our emotions are put into balance with our reasoning, and the result becomes part of the civilized legacy we profess to admire.

In "Twelve Angry Men," Reginald Rose takes us into a jury room to reveal how one of a dozen seated jurors turns around his peers, all strangers to him and to each other, from a guilty to a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a 16-year-old teen from an unspecified racial/ethnic minority. Indiana Repertory Theatre on Friday night opened its 48th season with a production of the drama. Known initially as a television show, then a popular movie, "Twelve Angry Men" works onstage so well because it's the type of play that plunges us into real-world conundrums: What do we believe is true? And how are we sure?

James Still directs thirteen astute actors over a 100-minute span. Junghyun Georgia Lee's set is a drab, basically furnished Manhattan jury room subdued to the point of no-nonsense seriousness. The large, dirty windows are stubborn to open in the hope of fresh air. Embedding the show in the reality of 1957 not only makes sense in there being no air conditioning, which is the occasion for much mopping of brows and necks as summer stress levels rise. It also explains how a jury in a capital case was impaneled consisting of only white men, with one exception in this cast. Gender balance, and other kinds, too, would be the norm today, even though that never guarantees a just result, either.

The men learn only a bit about each other as they attend to the task at hand. These are '50s men — outwardly sure of themselves to a fault, not inclined to intimacy, and perhaps too ready to let their superficial responses to the case they've just sat through dominate their judgment. Rose is stingy with the exchange of personal information; it's only through how they define themselves in considering the case that their personalities take on three dimensions.

Todd Mack Reischman's sound design pours a thin layer of street sounds over the animated, often feisty dialogue. Sparely scored music is another judiciously used accompaniment. Even the thunderstorm is not overdone, though its occurrence late in the jury's deliberations is essential. What continuously captures the attention are the dynamics and maneuvering of the jurors. They respond initially to the outlier among them Juror Eight, played with steady conviction and well-disguised compassion by Chris Amos. The initial surprise his fellow jurors
Stunned and irritated, the jury turns on the resistance of Juror Eight.
express that their verdict is not to be a unanimous "guilty" gradually becomes the slow but inexorable progress of the standard of "reasonable doubt" that the teen stabbed his father to death, according to the charge.

The action is varied not only by Still's control of the mood in the room — from quiet deliberation to burgeoning fisticuffs, with lots of yelling in between — but also by the subtle reorientation of the visual perspective. That's the work of a turntable occasionally turning beneath the table and chairs where the jury is seated. Further variety is contributed by Still's interruptions of a truly "seated" jury, as the men get up, argue, or mill about, sometimes repairing in ones, twos and threes to an adjoining restroom to freshen up and blow off a little steam to whoever among their colleagues happens to be there at the same time.

Particularly exciting was the way the men moved when stirred by Juror Eight's pacing off the route of one of the witnesses while another juror times Eight's studied imitation of an old man whose testimony accordingly seems unreliable. Timing is crucial, Juror Eight teaches his fellows. Everything the prosecution had put forward, in addition to Juror Eight's suggestion that the accused's defense was neither robust nor thorough, starts to weigh heavily upon the men's readiness to deliver their verdict.

The most vociferous proponents of what promised to be the original verdict were played with astonishing passion and insight by Craig Spidle and Robert Ierardi.  Their characters' deep-grained prejudices remind us how current nativism and racism remain in American thought. Resonance with today's equivalent viewpoints are strong, just as they are when readers (or theater audiences) encounter Tom Buchanan's thunderings about the decline of white hegemony in the nearly century-old "The Great Gatsby."

The rest of the juror portrayals benefited from vivid accounts by Seth Andrew Bridges, Scot Greenwell, Henry Woronicz, Demetrios Troy, Casey Hoekstra, Michael Stewart Allen, Mark Goetzinger, Patrick Clear and Charles Goad. In a slight role that necessarily represents the official court world, Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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