(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- In a hot jury room lacking air conditioning, twelve jurors gather for a quick vote on whether or not they believe a young man is guilty of murdering his father. If they all agree he is guilty, he gets the electric chair. The vote, which must be unanimous either way, is 11 to 1. The lone vote comes from a man who isn't convinced the boy is innocent, but doesn't believe his guilt is certain either.
"Boy oh boy, there's always one," said an annoyed juror as the lone hold-out manages to persuade the others into debating the case.
This is the scenario behind the classic courtroom drama, "Twelve Angry Men" by Reginald Rose. Originally written in 1954 as a television play for the classic Studio One series, it was expanded into a full stage version in 1955. A film version starring Henry Fonda was released two years later. Rose wrote the screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
As with all of the plays on this season's schedule for George Street Playhouse, "Twelve Angry Men" was chosen to honor the late Arthur Laurents. In his opening announcement, George Street's Artistic Director, David Saint said, "So much of this play is about an individual that is willing to stand up for whatever he believes in." Saint compared this to Laurents' life-long fights for social justice.
If you follow the casting notes around New Jersey you'll probably remember that Jack Klugman was originally scheduled to be part of this cast, but had to pull out due to health reasons. His replacement also had to cancel, forcing George Street to scramble a bit to fill the role. Saint joked about the jury process involved in casting, "We had to use alternates!" In the end, while we all would have loved to see Klugman back on the GSP stage, Terry Layman proved more than up to the task.
Ironically, art imitated life during the rehearsals for "Twelve Angry Men" as the actors often ate in the same deli as the real-life jurors in the high-profile Rutgers University student trial involving Dharun Ravi -- a trial that also dealt with the crime of a young boy as Saint pointed out.
George Street's revival is wonderful. As always with George Street, the cast is spectacular. The play stars Gregg Edelman as Juror Eight, the lone vote of dissent along with Scott Drummond, Jonathan Hadary, Jonathan C. Kaplan, James Rebhorn, Michael Sirow, Lee Sellars, David Schramm, and Layman. Andrew Nogasky plays the courtroom guard. A list that includes stellar resumes including many Tony and Emmy Award nominations, popular television shows, and hit films.
The jurors include a mix of all parts of New York City society from working-class folks with little education to the immigrant proud to take part in the legal process; from those who are highly intelligent to those who appear so rich as if they no longer even have to work. As time goes by and the jurors all take turns explaining why they believe the boy is guilty, stereotypes and personal histories creep into play. It becomes clearer and clearer that some aren't voting based on the evidence, but on personal bias. Yet, Juror Eight remained alone as nobody else would openly change their vote.
With patience running thin, the lone juror makes a deal with the others. They would take one more vote -- this time by secret ballot -- and if everyone was still unanimous, he would go along with them, but if the vote had changed they would give it more time. The vote was 9 to 1, so they continued on.
The title of this work is spot on. It could easily have been named, "Reasonable Doubt" but that's not what the play is about. The jury may have been advised to vote for acquittal if they had even the smallest seed of reasonable doubt inside, but these jurors didn't really set out for the truth. They were a bunch of angry men; angry for reasons known only to them, full of prejudices that would rise to the surface among strangers in a moment of truth.
There's always something amazing about courtroom dramas. Many people will quickly say they dislike lawyers, but courtroom dramas are loved by most. Personally, I think people love this play because, in our heart of hearts, we all hope and pray that justice truly works this way. It may not be pretty, but it works out in the end. At least we hope it does...
"Twelve Angry Men" is running at George Street Playhouse (9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ) until April 8, 2012. For more information visit http://www.georgestreetplayhouse.org
Photos by T. Charles Erickson