Stage Door Review

Twelve Angry Men

Monday, July 22, 2019

✭✭

by Reginald Rose, directed by Marti Maraden

Drayton Entertainment, Playhouse II, Grand Bend

July 18-August 3, 2019;

Hamilton Family Theatre, Cambridge

August 9-24, 2019

Juror 8: “It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth”

Drayton Entertainment has just opened an outstanding production of the American classic Twelve Angry Men. In Toronto I’ve seen the touring production from the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2008 and the Soulpepper production in 2014. Excellent as those productions were, the current Drayton production directed by Marti Maraden strikes me as the best of the three. The reason is that Maraden has looked closely at the text and found that the dynamics of the characters’ interactions are more complex than they are usually portrayed. Maraden has welded veterans of the Stratford and Shaw festivals with Drayton regulars into a top-notch ensemble who deliver a powerful performance of a play whose message is even more relevant now that it was even five years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the play or the famous 1957 film of it directed by Sidney Lumet, here is the plot summary I wrote in 2014: “Rose’s 1954 teleplay rewritten for the stage in 1955 concerns an all-male jury charged with deciding the fate of a 16-year-old boy accused of killing his father. It’s a sweltering day and most of the jurors want to finish their work as soon as possible. All except Juror 8 are convinced the trial proved the boy is guilty. Juror 8, however, is not convinced that the trial has shown the boy’s guilt ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’, the key criterion upon which the jury must make its decision. Over the objections of two particularly obnoxious men, Juror 8 tries to convince the others why he thinks there is ‘reasonable doubt’ in this case. The play is exciting not only because it shows one man holding to his beliefs in the face of massive opposition, but it also demonstrates the triumph of logic and compassion over fuzzy thinking and prejudice”.

It is very easy to stage the text as if Juror 8 is the only hold-out voter because he has a clear view of what all of his objections are and carefully leads all the other jurors around to his point of view. What makes Maraden’s approach so different is that she has realized that the text does not support this as the way the play actually works. Initially, Juror 8 explains himself not by saying that he knows the defendant is not guilty but that he has “sufficient doubt” about the defendant’s guilt. He has this doubt because he has noticed that the defending attorney did not follow up the many inconsistencies in the story that would have helped his client.

The one dramatic action Juror 8 has taken on himself is to test the prosecutor’s claim that the knife the defendant used was unique. Juror 8 has gone out and bought a knife just like the weapon used, thus proving the murder knife is not unique and not necessarily the defendant’s. 

Otherwise, what Maraden has discovered in the text is that it is the other jurors who bring up questions for Juror 8 to answer. Often he will say he doesn’t know the answer, but just as often it will occur to another juror what the answer might be. Twice it is the elderly Juror 9 who gives the key insight into why witnesses’ testimonies against the boy may be false. Juror 5, who grew up in a slum as did the defendant, is the one to realizes that the manner in which the father was stabbed is not how users of switchblades would stab their victims. 

Maraden’s close reading of the text thus changes Juror 8 from the crusading hero as he appears in the 1957 film and did in the Roundabout production into an ordinary man with who takes the notion of “reasonable doubt” seriously and whose courage in holding out against the eleven other jurors serves as a catalyst to trigger their own doubts about the case. 

Maraden’s production does not depict Juror 8 convincing everyone else but rather a communal awakening as one by one each juror realizes there are detail they ignored that have an important bearing on the story. Even the two most verbally and physically abusive Jurors, 3 and 10, come to realize that their conviction that the defendant is guilty has everything to do with their prejudices and nothing to do wth the facts. 

One way Maraden reinforces her refreshing take on the play is by not casting one the several available stars from the Shaw or Stratford festivals as Juror 8. In the film Juror 8 is played by Henry Fonda, whose image is already that of a hero and whose deliberate approach in the film can be easily construed as his leading the others to conclusions he has already made. Roundabout and Soulpepper also cast stars in the role of Juror 8 in the person of Richard Thomas in the former and Stuart Hughes in the latter. 

Maraden has cast Skye Brandon as Juror 8. Although Brandon has played leads in Shakespeare in Saskatchewan, his only previous credit at Drayton is as Biff in Death of a Salesman in 2017. Unlike Fonda, Thomas or Stuart, Brandon plays Juror 8 as completely non-charismatic. He makes him as nondescript and ordinary a person as possible, so unexceptional that he tends to fade into the background when other jurors are debating. Such a playing style may seem counter-intuitive but it is absolutely vital to Maraden’s view of the play. Her entire point, as is Rose’s, is that it is not a specially gifted, unusually intelligent person who objects to how the trial was managed, but rather the most ordinary person possible who has taken the judge’s direction about “reasonable doubt” seriously and simply by using common sense has come to realize that there are too many holes in the case that create doubt about the defendant’s guilt. It takes a huge amount of control deliberately to underplay such a key role, but Brandon does it so naturally that he appears simply as a constructively questioning member of the group just as Jurors 3 and 10 are its unhelpfully unquestioning members. 

Benedict Campbell, making his Drayton debut, is well known from his 14 seasons at the Shaw Festival and 10 at Stratford. He is well-cast as the blowhard Juror 3 who frequently erupts into rage over the others’ questioning of the evidence. Although Juror 3 is not consciously aware of the fact, Campbell makes it clear to us Juror 3 has such fierce animosity toward the defendant simply because a son is accused of killing his father. Juror 3 sees in the case, irrespective of the facts, an image of a son’s insubordination to his father that recalls his personal problems with his own son. At the end Campbell, contrary to all expectations, wins our sympathy when Juror 3 finally comes to see the depth of his own foolishness.

The most frightening member of the jury is Juror 10 played by Brad Rudy, best known for his 26 seasons at Stratford. Juror 10’s reason for wanting to find the defendant guilty is because he is a virulent racist: “Look, you know how these people lie! It's born in them! I mean, what the heck? I don't have to tell you! They don't know what the truth is! And lemme tell ya: they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either! No sir! They get drunk! Oh, they're real big drinkers, all of 'em - you know that - and bang: someone's lyin' in the gutter! Oh, nobody's blaming them for it. That's the way they are, by nature! You know what I mean? Violent!... Human life don't mean as much to them as it does to us!” Rudy carefully plays Juror 10 by gradually allowing the rage to build up in him until it bursts forth in the tirade above.

While Jurors 3, 8 and 10 are the most vociferous characters in the play, they work as part of an ensemble in which there is no weak link. Each of the actors paints a vivid portrait of his character. Among the most notable of these is Stratford veteran of 29 seasons Keith Dinicol as Juror 9, the oldest man on the jury. While we tend to get caught up in the arguments among the other jurors, every time Dinicol’s character gets up the courage to speak everyone listens. Dinicol gives Juror 9 a humbleness that causes him to be reticent, but Dinicol shows that he may be, in fact, the keenest observer of detail of the entire group.

Kevin Kruchkywich plays Juror 7, the closest the play has to comic relief. This juror is anxious to have the jury deliberations over quickly just so he can get to a baseball game on time. He is a comic version of Jurors 3 and 10 in that his personal agenda, not the facts, is what guides his decisions. Yet, despite all of Juror 7’s innumerable sports metaphors, Kruchkywich is able to show the egocentric juror is gradually and with some embarrassment able to perceive the gravity of the jury’s task of deciding on the life or death of the defendant as more important than seeing his game. 

Neil Barclay, familiar from 27 seasons at the Shaw Festival, plays the important character of Juror 11, a recent immigrant who admires the American justice system. Barclay makes sure Juror 11’s politeness, self-restraint and propriety provide a complete contrast to Juror 10 next to whom he is seated. Juror 10’s bigotry is not merely racist but xenophobic so that Barclay’s well-spoken Juror 11 represents all the virtues, that Juror 10 denies, that immigrants bring to a country along with a greater sense than some native citizens have of the values of American institutions. 

Jacob James is excellent as Juror 1, the foreman of the jury. In other productions this character tends to fade in relation to Juror 8 in the play, but not here. James portrays Juror 1 as a tough but practical man whose anger rises since he so often has to keep order amidst the unruly jury. Because James depicts Juror 1 as so even-handed in keeping the jurors in line, we wonder when he will apply this fair-mindedness in his peacekeeping actions to the case itself. When he does so, it feels as like a watershed moment.

Alan Wilbee’s set depicts a well-worn room so old that electricity and better plumbing has been added after the building was constructed. Unlike the Roundabout and Soulpepper productions, he has cleverly added a separate men’s washroom to the set. This makes it more believable than in the usual one-room set for characters to have private conversations about how they think the deliberations are proceeding.

Even if you have seen the film or another production before, this production of Twelve Angry Men deserves to be seen because of the fresh point of view Marti Maraden and her cast bring to the play. Even if you know the play’s outcome, the process of of how it arrives at its conclusion is still fascinating. 

Particularly noteworthy is Juror 10’s hate-filled tirade against “those people” whom he brands as habitual liars and murderers. In the play the other jurors shrink away from someone with such repulsive remarks. Today, however, the President of the United Staes has repeatedly said exactly those things and others have not shrunk away but defended him. To think that Rose’s play was first broadcast in 1954 and and to see what is now happening 65 years later, one has to wonder whether society has actually progressed since the 1950s or is a process of regression. Rose’s play about the importance of facts and how they can be distorted by prejudice could not be more relevant, and Maraden’s production brings this point powerfully home. This is one of the must-see plays of the summer. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) The ensemble of Twelve Angry Men with Skye Brandon (standing); the ensemble of Twelve Angry Men with Skye Beandon (hand raised); Keith Dinicol as Juror 9, Benedict Campbell as Juror 10, Thomas Duplessie (back turned) as Juror 5 and Terry Barna as Juror 6. © 2019 Darlene O'Rourke.

For tickets, visit www.draytonentertainment.com.