In Northern Stage’s production of Twelve Angry Men, an accomplished cast demonstrates how a live stage version of the well-known film can crackle with tension. The jury-room setting and the search for a life-or-death verdict prove timeless in this immaculate production.
Already weary from a hot day and a long trial, 12 jurors convene to determine whether an 18-year-old defendant killed his father. It’s 1954, and the death penalty is mandatory. When they begin deliberations, all but one think it’s obvious the defendant is guilty. But Juror No. 8 hesitates. He asks the others to pause and review the evidence; he asks them to be sure.
The craftsmanship of the play is evident as each point of the case blossoms into complexity on examination. We in the audience hear the facts and initially draw the same conclusions that point to the defendant’s guilt. But, as the jurors examine the details, subtleties and contradictions emerge.
Reginald Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men as a television drama, inspired by his own turn on a jury. The play is an intense character study in which we never learn many personal details about the jurors, even their names. Instead, we go by appearances and minor facts, plus a few inadvertent admissions, to draw conclusions about the characters. That paradox of being so certain but knowing so little about the subjects is a vivid parallel to what the legal system reveals and conceals in the course of a trial.
It’s also a setting for remarkable drama. The confined space of a jury room, the intersection of total strangers and the momentous decision they must make all converge to reveal the essence of the dozen men.
Twelve Angry Men explores what it means for a defendant to “look guilty” while dissecting how each of the characters looks to us. As they judge the unseen defendant, we’re judging them.
Director Malcolm Morrison ups the stakes with nontraditional casting that boldly places a racist screed in the mouth of an African American actor and keeps us testing our assumptions about characters portrayed by actors of different races and ethnicities.
This is a courtroom drama, but it’s about the burden of proof, not unraveling a mystery. The conflict lies in balancing logic with emotion and truth with preconceptions. As the debate shifts from polite disagreement to angry confrontation, the play demonstrates how each juror views the facts through the lens of personal experience.
Morrison gets outstanding performances from a talented professional cast. With a large playing space, he uses physical movement to convey relationships and personalities as the characters move to and from the table, confronting or retreating. Morrison’s sublime tableaux are not merely handsome compositions but are rooted in storytelling. At times Morrison conveys heavy stillness, with the weight of the decision pressing down on the group; in other moments he unleashes confrontations in which characters must reevaluate not only their conclusions but their identities.
Morrison sets each gear in the complex watch works ticking; then the actors produce concentration that sizzles onstage. Each juror moves through a spectrum of emotions, but the ensemble works together with easy naturalism that conceals the craft beneath.
Jamie Horton conveys calm integrity as Juror No. 8, a wise choice that makes the production a study of humanity instead of a ruler-rapping-your-knuckles civics lesson. Horton is so engaged with the other jurors that he never becomes a sanctimonious pillar of rectitude. That’s why they listen to him; that’s why we do.
Juror No. 3, played by Christian Kohn, begins as life-of-the-party social glue but devolves into a bully. Kohn captures his bravado, then deftly conveys the wound this man is nursing. Morrison sets up his breakdown scene with Kohn facing the rest of the jury, his back to us. The visual coup works because Kohn has developed the character so well that we can watch the reactions he receives while imagining the pain on his face.
Keith Hamilton Cobb plays Juror No. 10, the bigot whose shameless interest in a guilty verdict grows ugly. Cobb handles the role with such brilliant subtlety that we see how his racism paralyzes him.
The cast members interact with precision, conveying the sharp surprises of the play with gritty realism. The tension mounts because the characters are richly portrayed, without the shortcut of histrionics.
Bill Clarke’s set design contains small and scrupulous details of a municipal jury room in a space that’s soaring enough to evoke proper awe for the proceedings. It’s a nice trick to shift our focus from the quotidian fluorescent lights to the majesty of a table seating 12.
Costumes by Allison Crutchfield convey a ’50s style without methodically matching the garments of the time. By resisting the temptation to mount a little museum exhibit of past fashions, Crutchfield lets us concentrate on what’s eternal about the play while acknowledging the period.
If you classify these 12 men by their dress and the scant facts offered, you’re using your own biases to draw conclusions. This play reminds us how to look deeper; how to ask, “Are you sure?”
"Twelve Angry Men" by Reginald Rose, stage version by Sherman L. Sergel, directed by Malcolm Morrison, produced by Northern Stage. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through October 20, 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays also at 2 p.m.; Sundays at 5 p.m. at Briggs Opera House, White River Junction. $10-60. northernstage.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Burden of Proof"