There’s enough anger for twelve men, with plenty of emotion to spare, in a steamy 1950s jury deliberation drama presented in the Castle Ballroom of the Sterling Hotel in Dallas. This famous relic from half a century ago, 12 Angry Men, is the debut presentation of Poor Man Productions, and the venue offers dinner, bar, and theater in the round.
The set is simple — a conference table, twelve chairs, water pitcher, and a window. The cast of twelve is anything but simple. Although uncolored by gender or racial diversity, this group of men represent a wide range of types, each skillfully written and portrayed with just a few words of dialogue. This is the kind of writing that gave us the Golden Era of television in the 1950s in which meaningful themes were explored and memorable characters created in surprisingly limited time and space.
Director Joey Folsom stays true to the roots of this classic, and in this small, stuffy room filled with angry men, we are transported back in time with their mannerisms, dialects, everyday business suits with 1950s accessories, fedoras, and Clark Kent glasses.
I remember a director once gave this advice to the cast of a very cheesy Christmas story: “If you commit to the cheese, this will be fantastic.” I don’t think “cheesy” is the right word for this play, but “hokey” definitely fits at times, and the director and cast all committed thoroughly to the hokey-ness, with impressive results. Despite its clunky, predictable moments and soupy melodrama, the story is engaging and remarkably relevant to audiences today. The characters are all boiled down to their type element somehow without coming across as stereotypes. They retain their humanity in the way they interact with one another, whether shouting in anger or chatting aimlessly.
The beleaguered young jury foreman, played by company co-founder Nathan Autrey, wrestles with the frustrating task of directing deliberations toward a final verdict. Harry Listen is the senior citizen who touchingly expresses the loneliness and loss of esteem that might motivate another to give false testimony. The juror played by Francis “Hank” Henry is the icon of success in his impeccable suit and unflustered manner. Bryce Sharp grapples with class-ism as the only member of the jury who relates to the defendant’s tenement upbringing in the violent urban ghetto. Adrian Godinez is the European immigrant who pushes the patriotic buttons of the others with his soft-spoken good manners and his clear thinking and refuses to be provoked into defending his right to be there.
Brad Stephens as Juror 7 is unruffled and sophisticated. He turns his vote without the drama most of the others require. Brad Smeaton gives a delicious performance as the obnoxious bigot whose impassioned pleas disgusts the others and turns them away rather than rallying them to his racist philosophy. He does something very macho and interesting with his eyes when offering an unspoken challenge to one of the other men, something I find funny and kind of scary at the same time. It’s kind of a chilling “You want a piece of me?” smirk with the eyebrows raised, and Smeaton delivers it masterfully.
Advertising executive Juror 12, played by Andrew Maggs, gets laughs with his “throw it on the stoop” line among others, but it is the timid Juror 2, Alex Worthington, who delivers the most memorable comedic moments with his cough drop and the second hand on his wristwatch.
The point of the story is not the verdict but the deliberation that leads ultimately to a showdown between jurors Number 3 and Number 8. Juror 8 is a thoughtful, patient man, who resists the tide of reactionary instinct that almost carries the jury to an automatic conviction without deliberation. Andrew Kasten expertly portrays this man’s quiet control, his persistent and persuasive logic, and his unflinching courage to stand alone to face a roomful of angry men. He knows when to quietly allow his ideas to settle into the room to be digested and considered by the other men and when to raise his finger and his voice to call a man out for what he is.
His antagonist, Juror 3, played by Terry Yates, only gradually emerges as the unbalanced personality who refuses to yield to the simple logic of “reasonable doubt.” Yates does a nice job of bringing this character down a path — starting out as a willing though reluctant participant in the deliberations and offering reasonable support for his “guilty” vote. He even offers an apology for losing his temper and makes a noticeable attempt to maintain control of his emotions and to use calm logic and rational discussion to support his position.
As he loses supporters one by one and finds himself standing alone in opposition to “reasonable doubt,” his control breaks, and his passionate speech can be felt in the gut. “Geez, I can feel the knife going in my heart!” he cries, describing the pain a father feels when his son has turned on him, whether he deserved it or not.
Folsom keeps the story moving forward at an energetic pace with carefully considered movements and well-delivered dialogue. Though the air conditioning in the Castle Ballroom was on full blast, I felt the heat of that tiny jury room and the suffocation of the men when they made for the window in a futile gesture of escape.