My first experience with Lakewood Playhouse's production of 12 Angry Men began as I took my seat. To do so, I was led across the stage - passing by a table littered with scraps of paper, ashtrays, and discarded paper cups - to my section, which happened to sit right next to an old-fashioned municipal washroom. Twelve chairs surround the table, and the audience surrounds the chairs. 12 Angry Men's set design announces its intentions immediately and without mistake: as an audience, we are made to be conscientious observers, to judge these jurors as they judge a murder. It's an intriguing way to view this show, and it's one of the things that this production gets absolutely right.
I've sadly never seen the classic 1957 film by Sidney Lumet, so I can only judge this version of 12 Angry Men on its own terms, which is perhaps best. As an ensemble closed-room drama, there are numerous pitfalls that could befall the play, which the performance I attended largely avoids.
>>> Juror #2 makes his stand. Photo credit: Kate Paterno-Lick
Bringing together 12 anonymous jurors to decide the fate of a 17-year-old boy charged with the murder of his father, 12 Angry Men is very clear about its view on the judicial system and the troubling subjectivity of the men tasked with declaring "guilty" or "not guilty." Briefly: when the 12 men adjourn to their chambers, 11 of them blithely declare the boy guilty and champ at the bit to get out of the courthouse in a timely manner. Only Juror #8 (Bruce Story-Camp) is compelled to slow things down and actually consider the possibility that the boy didn't do it. Here, and many more times, the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" is laid out and examined, giving it the weight of meaning that it deserves.
>>> The first vote / photo credit: Kate Paterno-Lick
As the case is examined and re-examined and fought over, the audience is invited to make their own judgments as to the boy's innocence - though, of course, the polemical nature of the play leaves little doubt in the audience's mind of who is right or wrong and who has the moral high ground. My main faults with the production, indeed, lay largely on the often too-pat script itself. The outdated morality of it all leaves little room for ambiguity. Though its message is still relevant, the handling of the subject matter falls too frequently on convenient emotional motivations, which belies the implied thesis of 12 Angry Men: 12 men arguing over a case should be dramatic enough.
Still, there are many pleasures to be found in Lakewood Playhouse's 12 Angry Men. Once again, the stage set-up allows for wandering eyes to pick out little pieces of action as cliques are formed in the jury and asides in the washroom really feel like overheard conversations. Any faults in the acting could probably be attributed to first-night jitters, though there are standout performances from Joseph Grant (Juror #4), who seems to ooze gravitas; Bob Reed (Juror #7), who wonderfully handles the transition from "guy who just wants to catch the baseball game in time" to an actually passionate participant; and Michael Dresdner (Juror #11), as a European emigrant who gently and firmly explains the American justice system to his loutish peers.
>>> The Jurors listen to Juror #4's compelling case. Photo credit: Kate Paterno-Lick
It must be said that my colleague, fellow Weekly Volcano writer Christian Carvajal, has a doozy of a role, here, as the combative Juror #3 - a role that gets the brunt of emotional beats in the story. Carvajal handles himself with aplomb, but the ensemble is the show, here. 12 Angry Men may be somewhat outdated, but there is still something inherently compelling in watching a group of men learn to take a human's life seriously.
12 ANGRY MEN, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 16, pay what you can 8 p.m. Feb. 27, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, $19-$25, 253.588.0042