Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Twelve Angry Men
In 1953, a year before the landmark Brown v. Board decision that overturned legal segregation of races in schools and two years before Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement, Reginald Rose wrote a script for the television series Studio One called "Thunder on Sycamore Street." Its original subject was the mob hysteria which followed a successful black man's move into an upscale white neighborhood. CBS made him castrate the play; in the broadcast version, the interloper was an ex-convict. But Rose, in his vehement condemnation of bigotry, was a man far ahead of his time.
The next year, he wrote Twelve Angry Men, a teleplay based on his own experience as a juror in a manslaughter case, but reaching far beyond the issues of legal procedure and justice. The script presents, in real time, the deliberations of the jury in a murder case in which a guilty verdict means the death penalty. The twelve nameless white men who are gathered more or less unwillingly to determine the fate of an equally nameless and by clear implication black defendant are more than a jury; they are a microcosm of American society in the 1950s. Individually and jointly, they reveal, by their preoccupations, their prejudices and their small acts of cowardice, compromise and heroism, the fabric of post-war culture and the tensions that were building toward the convulsive disruptions of the 1960s.
Not surprisingly, Twelve Angry Men makes a splendid piece for the stage. Its unities of time place, and action are right out of Aristotle, and its minutely observed characters and ground-breaking dialog, tough and pitch-perfect, place it among the great works of naturalism that made the early years of television drama so memorable. Now, in an electrifying production at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, it demonstrates still another dimension: the power to remain not only relevant but essential after more than half a century.
It is perhaps a coincidence, if one believes in coincidence, but the opening of this powerful statement about complacency in the face of injustice at a theater in suburban Webster Groves has occurred on the heels of a tragic mass murder in a neighboring community in which the issues of racial and economic prejudice and oppression have emerged with frightening suddenness and power. The real-life words of people on the local streets and in local gathering places echo the lines of Rose's characters, sometimes angry, sometimes bewildered, but working hard to understand the right thing to do.
In that context, the superb performances by the cast of this production, individually to be sure but most impressively as an ensemble, offer a reassuring reminder that we can function as a society in spite of our diversity. It is worth remembering that the Studio One cast included names like Robert Cummings (as juror #8, the closest thing the play has to a protagonist) and Franchot Tone, with Vincent Gardenia in the very minor role of the guard. Here, familiar and highly respected local actors James Anthony, Rich Pisarkiewicz and Jerome Vogel blend their talents with a bevy of brilliant imports, including, among others, Jeff Talbott in a deftly understated performance as Juror #8, Greg Thornton as the impassioned Juror #3 and the amazing Dane Knell as the worldly wise Juror #9.
Director Martin Platt keeps the pace brisk; the play is staged in a single, intense act which seems much shorter than its actual hour and three quarters. The set, by Judy Gailen, is meticulously built and as efficient as the script itself. Claudia Stephens does wonders with the superbly thought-out vintage costumes.
In summary, the current production of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis is a bristling, brilliant example of live theater at its thought-and-emotion-provoking best, a fitting testament to the real-life power of dramatic art when combined with insight and compassion. It will run through March 2; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.