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Chicago by John Olson

Twelve Angry Men
Raven Theatre

Also see John's reviews of The Long Red Road and The 101 Dalmatians Musical

Twelve Angry Men
Dwight Sora, Christopher Brown, Bryson Engelen, Dan Loftus, Steve Herson and Reginald Vaughn
Three years ago, in my review of the Roundabout Theatre's touring production of this play, I wrote that I'd love to see how the piece would play in a tiny storefront theater. With this production by the Raven Theatre, I essentially got my wish. The Raven's East Stage is larger and nicer than a storefront, but still very intimate. Yes, this piece, which began its life as a 1954 television drama, plays better when the performers are right in your face. You can share the claustrophobia of the 12 men sitting in a cramped jury room without air conditioning or a functioning fan on a sweltering day in July 1954, made all the more real by Kelly Dailey's deliberately dingy set of a courthouse probably built during the depression.

Director Aaron Todd Douglas quickly gets his cast playing the 12 jurors on a murder trial into high gear. They enter the jury room with sweat on their brows, eager to get out of the room as quickly as they can. By the time their spritzed-on sweat evaporates, the actors are so fully engaged in confronting the single holdout that refuses to vote for a guilty verdict that you don't even notice if the actors are now producing their own sweat. Douglas gives the piece an intriguing little twist by making the dissenting juror—played in the 1957 and 1997 film versions as a paragon of reason by the ultimate nice guys Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon respectively—as a little less noble, and a bit of a troublemaker. In the hands of C.L. Brown, Juror #8, the architect who steps in the way of the jury's rush to judgment, is a bit arrogant and initially seems to question the jury's consensus as much out of intellectual sport as anything. It's only as he gradually gets his fellow jurors to slow down and consider the evidence more critically that he shows empathy for the accused and becomes more concerned about the justness of their verdict.

The angriest man of all, Juror #3, played so memorably by Lee J. Cobb in the 1957 film and by George C. Scott in 1997 version, is given appropriate bitterness and rage by Dan Loftus. Eddie Diaz commands attention in the play's early moments as Juror #7—the rugged salesman anxious to finish up so he can get to a Yankees game. Douglas and his non-Equity cast add distinctive personality traits to each of playwright Reginald Rose's characters so that we easily keep them straight and find them believable. J.J. McCormick (Juror #9) is a no-nonsense older African American who has little patience for the younger and headstrong African-American Juror #10 (Reginald Vaughn). Leonard Kraft nicely captures the gentleness of the old Eastern European immigrant Juror #11. Steve Herson is a precise and somewhat prissy Juror #2, but with greater warmth and humanity than the more arrogant and intellectual Juror #4, played by Bryson Engelen. Fernando "Mojo" Albiar gets a great moment in which he displays his kinship with the accused, explaining how he came from the same immigrant neighborhood. Kenneth Johnson gives the role of the Foreman an exasperated impatience, while Ron Quade (Juror #12) is the spineless advertising man who's easily swayed by the others, and Dwight Sora is the working-class regular guy Juror #6. Carthy Dixon rounds out the cast as an appropriately officious Bailiff.

The piece's 1950s sensibility is, in addition to Dailey's perfect depiction of a drab public building, established through Sharlet Webb's costumes, with the men appropriately dressed in suits and carrying hats into the room. Rick Sims' original music underscoring the scene openings and endings has an Elmer Bernstein feel that evokes the feelings of mid-century gritty urban drama.

This placement of the action so clearly in the mid-fifties when racial politics were simpler, is undercut to a degree by Douglas' multi-racial casting, presumably done to reflect the more complex dynamics of prejudice today. In the fifties, whites comprised the vast majority of the American population and African Americans were the largest minority. It was logical that the jurors of the original TV show and the 1957 film were all white, and fair to presume the accused and his "kind" were African-American (although the boy of the 1957 film appeared more Hispanic). In this casting, prejudice is displayed to varying degrees among each of the races depicted on the jury, and the bias may be as related to class differences as racial or ethnic stereotypes. It's a valid message (and a casting strategy that was used in the 1997 TV film as well), but a message more of our time than of the fifties. Further, when Juror #10 rants about the accused and his kind, expressing fears that "they" are multiplying and will take "us" over, it seems incongruous coming from an African American as the charges he makes were quite frequently made against members of his race earlier in the 20th century. Granted, there's the suggestion here that the accused is Hispanic. Juror #5, who says he's from the same neighborhood as the accused, is played by a Latino, but the racial dynamic becomes less clear than it was as originally played. The impact of Juror #10's breakdown is further weakened by Vaughn's generally comic approach to the character—he doesn't prepare us to believe his character holds such passionate beliefs.

These disconnects aren't fatal, though, and are unlikely to be very problematic for audiences familiar with the piece. Twelve Angry Men's exploration of the ways in which racial bias or personal resentments can prejudice opinions in tragic ways is a timeless theme and one earnestly and energetically conveyed in this production.

Twelve Angry Men will be performed through April 17, 2010 on Raven Theatre's East Stage, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago. Tickets and information available at www.raventheatre.com or 773-338-2177.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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