By Paul Love
Starting out as a 1954 teleplay, TWELVE ANGRY MEN was adapted into the famous 1957 film, and then a play which saw its London premiere in 1964, and its Broadway premiere in 2004 — a full 50 years after the original TV version. Although the play has seen updated versions designed to modernize it (Twelve Angry Jurors, Twelve Angry Women), there are themes and ideas found within the original play that still resonate today. Ajax Community Theatre and director Kevin Shaver have chosen to present the play in its original form, assembling some of the most talented male actors in Durham and the surrounding regions.
For those who don’t know the story, the titular twelve men are the twelve jurors tasked with reaching a verdict in a murder case that has just had the closing arguments presented as the play opens. The accused is a 16-year-old charged with the murder of his own father. Beyond the walls of the jury room, we hear the judge explaining to the jurors — and we, the audience — exactly what’s at stake: if they all believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty, there will be a mandatory death sentence. As the judge’s words permeate the empty jury room, we are given a moment to pore over Nancy Palumbo and Dave Edward’s appropriately cramped, linear set, which succinctly places it in the show’s mid-1950s setting with its meager metal fan, and the institutional green walls that were so common in that era. The gauzy quality of the small glimmer of New York City skyline we can see through a window contrasts nicely with the stark, straight lines of the room and ordered layout of the notepads and chairs that reminds us we are in a time when attitudes and traditions were unaccommodating and unyielding.
The twelve men enter the jury room, commence with some idle chit-chat, and then get down to the business of reaching a verdict. At the outset, a vote reveals that 11 of the 12 jurors believe the accused is guilty. Only Juror 8 seems to have reservations. Despite pressure and opposition from some of the other jurors, Juror 8 insists on explaining why he’s not sure the accused is guilty, and why it begs discussion. As the deliberations continue, words are exchanged, tempers flare, and Juror 8’s reasonable doubt begins to spread to the other jurors’ minds, or in some cases, only emboldens their convictions that the accused is guilty. Throughout the course of the play we discover what fuels these convictions.
A show that has twelve characters in one room — doing a lot of talking, and not a lot of moving — requires the kind of performances that can draw you in and captivate your attention. This cast does just that — across the board. Martin Kalin presents Juror 8 as the charismatic and calm voice of reason so well that his earnest dismantling of the Prosecution’s case is completely believable. Kalin’s powerful mix of impassioned speeches and quiet desperation make his performance riveting. Mark Salonius definitely puts the “angry” in TWELVE ANGRY MEN with a Juror 10 who constantly exudes an aura of menace, barking at and bullying his fellow jurors, building to a powerful, unpleasant rant that reveals the agenda behind his vote of “guilty”. Shael Risman presents a different kind of angry with a Juror 4 who carries more of a seething sense of disgust, and with surprising outbursts of knife-sharp malevolence. Joe Szekeres plays Juror 11, a German immigrant, with a wonderful sense of quiet, dignified grace (and a great accent to match), which plays nicely against the more caustic personalities in the room. Lincoln Trudeau portrays the quiet, logical, buttoned-down Juror 4 so seamlessly and convincingly that the audience may assume there’s no possible way he would change his vote. The rest of the cast are all effective at presenting characters that are fully realized and distinct from one another. Kevin Shaver has done a great job of adding movement to the show in ways that feel completely natural and not simply done for the sake of variety.
If you’re in the mood for some solid, well-performed courtroom — or, rather, jury room — drama, go see Ajax Community Theatre’s production of TWELVE ANGRY MEN while it’s still on. Remaining performances are February 22nd, 23rd, and 24th at the St. Francis Centre, 78 Church St. S. in Ajax at 8 pm. Tickets are available at the door or on the website.