The verdict is … plenty of riveting drama

John Settle, Thom Smith, Tom Bolton, Gary Seibert and Gord Cameron during rehearsal of 12 Angry Men, the Elmira Theatre Company production of the courtroom drama that opens Friday night. [Steve Kannon / The Observer]

It’s been more than six decades since Reginald Rose penned 12 Angry Men, but the play’s message of prejudice and judgment are no less valid today. Many things have changed, from technology to social norms, but at the basic level, are we really much different than we were in the 1950s?

Challenging our biases and assumptions is every bit as worthwhile as it was then, making 12 Angry Men a relevant choice as the latest offering from the Elmira Theatre Company, the production running from April 27 to May 12.

Based on Rose’s teleplay, which first aired on television but really gained prominence in the 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda, the play deals with issues such as racism and inequality that are very much part of life 60 years later.

Dealing with an apparently open-and-shut case in which an 18-year-old inner-city man is accused of killing his father, the jurors’ own foibles and characters come to light as they weigh the evidence. In need of a unanimous decision, the group is forced to dig deeper when the first vote splits 11-1 in favour of a guilty verdict. Slowly, things change as the jurors are forced to look past what was orchestrated in the courtroom.

With a man’s life literally in the balance – a guilty verdict in New York State was a death sentence at that time – the stakes are high, warranting a discussion, arguments and counter-arguments.

That’s how a movie or a play set in one room becomes a riveting classic.

“It’s been a favourite movie of mine since I first saw it. I loved it from the start,” says ETC veteran Joe Brenner, who wears the director’s hat for this production.

“I think the play works because, deep down, if any of us were asked to make a life-and-death decision, we’d struggle with it.”

He notes the story has an enduring appeal because the issues of class, race and social standing all continue today.

The makeup of the jury is a microcosm of society – an architect, a mechanic, a stockbroker, a football coach, racists, thinkers, hotheads … it’s all there, he says.

Rose wrote the screenplay after serving jury duty, noting that the hardest part of being on a jury is the relationships between the jurors themselves. That interplay is what makes 12 Angry Men so compelling, says Brenner.

He has set the ETC version of the play in 1957, maintaining the New York City locale. The script reflects the racism and perhaps inherent attitudes towards women – it is a dozen angry men, after all – that’s typical of the time. And we’ve not come as far as we’d like to think we have.

Maintaining a simple set – 12 men gathered around a long table – Brenner is presenting the play as theatre in the round. The audience will literally surround the stage on all four sides.

“I want the audience to feel they’re on that jury, in that room.”

The key is to keep the dramatic tension going at all times. It’s what makes the play work, and what gets the audience involved, he suggests, pointing out that’ll mean no intermission for this production. That would only serve to break the tension.

For the actors, there are some technical challenges to theatre in the round, but the cast has taken to the situation. The classic script is one actors want to tackle. They’re forced to dig into their characters – identified only as Juror 8 or Juror 2, for instance – in order to become that person in that room on that momentous day.

“This is a great group of actors. They’ve been so easy to work with,” says Brenner.

The Elmira Theatre Company production of 12 Angry Men runs April 27 to May 12 at the group’s 76 Howard Ave. venue. Tickets are available at the Centre in the Square box office in Kitchener by calling 519-578-1570 or 1-800-265-8977, online at www.centre-square.com or www.elmiratheatre.com.

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