It seems counterintuitive, given how grave a barrier “beyond a reasonable doubt” sounds, but nineteen out of twenty criminal jury trials end in conviction. Sometimes, of course, the facts are overwhelmingly persuasive but in many instances the jurors – that is to say, people like us – are guided by prejudice. I speak here not only of racial or gender assumptions but the common, ordinary reflexive judgments we make so that we don’t have to think too hard: a disinterested eyewitness will always tell the truth or the police would never manufacture evidence.
In this tight little jewelbox of a play which Keegan Theatre has honed to exquisite perfection, Reginald Rose takes us into the confines of a jury room, to watch twelve men thrash out the guilt or innocence of a nineteen-year-old accused of stabbing his father to death. They are not twelve good men and true but twelve hot and tired men, eager to be done with jury service and back to their jobs, families and entertainments. The evidence, superficially but clearly, indicates that the defendant is guilty and eleven jurors vote that way. Only Juror No. 8 (Colin Smith) is a holdout.
There is a certain improvisational quality to his dissent; he is unwilling to convict but unable to clearly show why. Gradually he circles through the evidence, discovering his misgivings and illuminating them for the others. In so doing, he faces four vociferous and dangerous antagonists – Juror No. 7 (Michael Innocenti), who wants to convict in time to get to his ball game; Juror No. 10 (Mark A. Rhea), a fulminating bigot whose smug assumptions about the defendant’s racial or ethnic group determined his vote before the evidence was heard; Juror No. 3 (David Jourdan), who has invested the defense of his entire social order in the defendants’ conviction; and, most toxically, Juror No. 4 (Kevin Adams), a reasonable, dignified, intelligent man whose confidence in his own conclusions is so majestic that it does not admit of reconsideration.
I could talk about the startling and yet resoundingly logical way that Juror No. 8 and, eventually, the others, dissect the evidence. But I would rather talk about the startling and yet astonishingly satisfying way that Director Christopher Gallu and this wonderful cast do the play. Can ninety-five minutes worth of men in suits arguing about evidence you’ve never seen grip you by the throat and make your heart pound? You betcha!
From the moment the dozen men march from the courtroom through the audience and onto the stage, tension fills the theater like a fog, and when the Foreman (Timothy Hayes Lynch) calls for the initial vote a few minutes later, the stakes are immediately clear.
I have seen Juror No. 8 played like a saint or a hero, but Smith and Gallu make a much more interesting choice. This No. 8 is a nebbish, and a vaguely sanctimonious one at that, so that his last-minute objections to what appears to be a clear narrative disturb us, as well as his rambunctious fellows. He is not entirely sympathetic, but his antagonists – particularly the choleric No. 3, who seems ready to beat his fellow-jurors into consensus – are even less so.
The five super-antagonists are all remarkably good, and Jourdan wonderfully so. Pop-eyed, red faced and so agonized that he appears to be a walking cramp, Jourdan’s No. 3 seems like a distillation of every impulse to act without reflection. And yet at the same time he is a full human being, the kind you might find telling off-color jokes while buying a round of drinks at the bar.
Rhea’s No. 10 is similarly marvelous. I have seen Rhea in perhaps two dozen performances over the years, but I have never seen him better than in this. His final pleading, repulsive speech, in which he tries to explain what “these people” are like to a roomful of his horrified fellow jurors, is as gruesome and as irresistible as watching a man disembowel himself.
But Twelve Angry Men is written for good actors, and most productions will have top talent in those five roles. What distinguishes the Keegan production from, say, the touring production I saw at the Kennedy Center a few years ago and which was, remarkably, not as good, is the quality of the direction and the quality of the seven other actors. Gallu, a mainstay of the old Catalyst Theater who deserves to be working here much more than he has been, assures that at every moment of the play, the twelve men are fully engaged, and so is the audience. Thus when a vote is taken and the count gets to 8-0 for conviction, Innocenti as Juror No. 7 slips on his coat and straightens his tie, preparatory to bolting from the jury room. He says not a word, and yet it tells us everything about his character.
Or consider Juror No. 12 (Jon Townson), an advertising shill who speaks entirely in clichés and who cannot make up his mind about anything. Though he has not a single line of sensible dialogue, Townson, sweating, twisting, smiling inappropriately, lets us know who he is every second he is on stage.
Twelve Angry Men could, with justice, be called Twelve Angry Middle-Class White Men, but it is of less matter than you might think. Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men in 1954 (after a jury experience of his own), but jury studies have shown that our more diverse juries today bring the same amount of preconception (though different ones) to the jury room. Our contemporary impulse, based primarily on No. 10’s outrageous statements, is to think that the defendant was African-American, but Rose never specifies, and in 1954 New York he might have been Puerto Rican, Italian or even Chinese. Rose’s jury is all-white, but it is a more diverse, less cosseted group of white men than you might find today. For example, Juror No. 5 (the excellent Andrés Talero) grew up in a ghetto not much different than the defendant’s; it is his familiarity with the switchblade (which he learned, he said, “on my stoop”) which provides a crucial turning point in the play.
The key to the success of any play is authenticity. Keegan’s Twelve Angry Men reeks with it. Let me cite one final example: Juror No. 9 (Richard Jamborsky) is an older man who radiates wisdom and a judicious calm in the face of rage and panic. Jamborsky is so authentic in the role that he reminds me of a well-known judge…wait a minute! I remember who! He reminds me of Richard Jamborsky, the former Chief Judge of the Fairfax County Circuit Court who won an award for his reforms to the criminal justice system from the County Commission on Human Rights and who turned to acting after retirement!
Brothers and sisters, when real life can seamlessly and with authenticity translate to the stage, that’s good theater.
Twelve Angry Men runs thru March 25, 2012 at Church Street Theatre, 1742 Church St NW, Washington, DC.
Twelve Angry Men
By Reginald Rose
Directed by Christopher Gallu
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, without interruption