The verdict is in: “Twelve Angry Men:” that iconic courtroom drama, still remains compelling storytelling. Ford Theatre’s production, gleaned from local talent and staged in the midst of racial tensions and a government shutdown, delivers a big punch and also leaves you with a slight case of “What did I really see?”
Following the classic 1957 film, this courtroom drama exploded as an American Theatre staple. It works so well because the ingredients are all there. It has modest set requirements, (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz used a smartly delivered set angled up to the stage, with Greek columns evoking the moral overtones as well as reflecting the courthouse gravitas). Its simple plot is laser-focused on its objective. It features an inspirational, one-person-can-make-a-difference theme that Americans just love, and a large, diverse cast (some contemporary re-thinking has included broader jury panels than the dozen white guys of the original). The jury-room drama is a favorite of high school and community groups or any company that has an acting ensemble it wants to show off.
The play is initially about one thing only: the deliberations of the jury of 12 men in a homicide trial where strangers, thrust together, will decide the fate of a teenager, (who we soon find out is black) and stands accused of stabbing and killing his abusive father. As the story unfolds, it hints at a short deliberation and a brief show. Most agree that it is open and shut, as the most outspoken jurors attest. There is vocal threesome of jurors who dominate the group initially–the one size fits all component of Juror 3 (the opinionated loudmouth Michael Russotto), Juror 2 (Sean Maurice-Lynch) the sports junkie whose mind is set and refuses to look at the facts, and Juror 10 (Elan Zafir), the working class bigot. As the outset, they have a nearly unanimous decision of guilty.
Suddenly speaking up is the dissenting Juror 8, confidently played by Erik King. A nicely effective contrast to Henry Fonda’s portrayal as a laid back, humanity-laden force for common good, King’s approach is of a young black corporate manager, as smooth as his well-tailored suit, logical and illuminating, appealing to others on an intellectual level.
In a series of vignettes examining aspects of the case, confidences are made, lines are drawn, and more than a few band-aids are ripped off of flesh. Part of the success is that it is such a juicy, well-defined character study. And these aren’t a cast of milquetoasts.
…it is riveting nonetheless because of the assembled talent onstage, as each divulges their inner thoughts.
The sublime assignment of the 6 black jurors that change their vote first smacks as being heavy-handed. Does this imply complete tribalism on each side of the racial prism? Epps makes other decisions to open the show up to stylistic conventions—gone is the closed claustrophobic surroundings creating a sweaty pressure cooker of an affair. But it is riveting nonetheless because of the assembled talent onstage, as each divulges their inner thoughts. We are treated to local luminaries Laurence Redmond as the logical stockbroker and Craig Wallace as the elderly observant juror who is the voice of reason. Russotto’s turn as the agitated juror who must come to grips with his prejudice and his own past is a winning take.
Racism is definitely in play here – most thunderously articulated in a masterfully vituperative speech by Zafir as Juror Ten. But so is bias of just about every other kind—income, appearance, class. And no matter where you run into it, as Juror Eight observes, “prejudice obscures the truth.”
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.
“12 Angry Men” is presented by Ford’s Theatre, 10th St NW, Washington DC from Jan. 18th to Feb. 17th, 2019. For tickets to this or other events, call the information line at 202 982-2787 or online. https://www.fords.org