Theater Preview: ‘Twelve Angry Men’ revives dialogue through deliberation

Jan 2, 2007 at 7:11 pm
Richard Thomas and George Wendt in “12 Angry Men.”
Richard Thomas and George Wendt in “12 Angry Men.”
In the opening moments of the classic American drama “Twelve Angry Men,” the jury enters its chambers to deliberate on a case concerning a boy charged with first-degree murder. The defendant is poor and has received ineffective representation. Several people have testified that they saw him commit the crime and flee the scene. If the jury determines he is guilty, he will be sentenced to death.

After gathering in a hot room on this summer afternoon, one juror asks another, “What do we do now?” The other responds, “Well, I guess we talk?” So ensues nearly 90 minutes of riveting “talk,” spurred on by one juror’s skepticism of the defendant’s guilt, which ignites tempers and sows the seed of doubt among his colleagues.

Next week, PNC Broadway Across America brings Louisville some welcome non-musical fare: Roundabout Theatre Company’s touring production of this drama, which comes on the heels of glowing reviews and box-office success in cities it has already visited. (In September, Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center sold more than $1 million worth of advance tickets for the production.)

Louisville is the 11th stop on the production’s 19-city, 32-week excursion, which is the first touring show for Manhattan’s Roundabout. The Broadway theater opened a revival of “Twelve Angry Men” in October 2004 and extended it to May 2005, making it one of the theater’s biggest hits. The touring production, while promoting cast members Richard Thomas (most known for playing John-Boy on “The Waltons”) and George Wendt (known for his role as Norm on “Cheers”), remains a solid ensemble piece, just as playwright Reginald Rose wrote it for a 1954 television script and adapted it in 1957 for a movie, starring Henry Fonda, and, again, in 1964 for the stage.

Under the guidance of director Scott Ellis, the associate artistic director of the Roundabout, the Broadway production received three Tony Award nominations (including best director) in 2005 and won the Drama Desk award for Outstanding Revival of a Play.

In October, Ellis told The Washington Post that Roundabout decided to mount the production after an informal reading during which “something clicked” with the audience. One reason might be the timeless appeal of examining the American legal system, a fascination reflected by the abundance of TV shows like “Law & Order.”

However, the play offers audiences much more. It includes characters who come from different walks of life and who are still a part of American society. They include a bigot, a bank clerk, an immigrant, an advertising executive and an architect who, along with seven others, consider their weight of responsibility in searching for truth and serving democracy. The dialogue — and listening — among them makes the play a tour de force. While the deliberations incorporate much emotion, from anger to boredom, ultimately the characters converse and reach an agreement.

Their discussions are the sort Americans should emulate more often. They delve into the gray areas of truth, a realm occupied by assumptions that often go unchallenged, and by emotions rooted in personal and sometimes traumatic experiences. They question authority and consider reasonable doubt, especially when life hangs in the balance.

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