By Heidi Sutton
For a play that takes place in a single room, “12 Angry Men” has had quite a ride. Written by Reginald Rose after he served as a juror on a manslaughter case, it was turned into a made-for-television movie and broadcast live on the CBS program Studio One in 1954.
The success of the television production resulted in a film adaptation in 1957. Starring Henry Fonda and Jack Klugman, the movie is consistently ranked as one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time and was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry in 2007 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
And significant it is. Over 60 years later, the behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system continues to make an impact in community theaters all around the world. This month, it makes its way to the Mainstage of Theatre Three, a stark contrast to its last production, “Nunsense,” and is more relevant than ever.
Twelve men from different backgrounds sit on a jury where the accused has been charged with murder in the first degree … premeditated homicide. They are tasked with deliberating the guilty or innocent verdict beyond a reasonable doubt of a teenage boy who is accused of stabbing his father with a switchblade. If found guilty, he could face the electric chair. The judge orders the jury to “separate the facts from the fancy” and the deliberations begin.
Directed by Bradlee Bing, the seasoned cast does a terrific job conveying the sense of grave responsibility. As the jurors are led into the deliberating room, the security guard (Alan Schelp) locks them in, giving the sense of being held hostage until a decision is made.
The actors also effectively convey the temperature in the room by taking turns to fix the “broken” air conditioner, taking off their jackets, taking a sip of water and wiping their foreheads and back of necks. The audience feels the heat, which adds to the volatile environment that envelops the room.
The odds are stacked against the teenager. There are three witnesses, there’s a motive (his father beat him regularly), his alibi is shaky and the murder weapon belongs to him, “But sometimes the facts staring you in the face are wrong.”
A preliminary vote results in 11 guilty, one not guilty — Juror #8, played by Steve Ayle. “Boy, oh boy, there’s always one!” The majority of the jury just want to get out of there and get on with their lives. One has tickets to a baseball game, another wants to get back to running his business and so on.
But Juror #8 has doubts and he’s not ready to give in to peer pressure. “A man’s life is on the line …” He asks to see the murder weapon again, to see the layout of one of the witness’ apartment, always questioning and pointing out inconsistencies as the other jurors change their vote one by one.
The characters and plot and suspense develop slowly and that’s the beauty of it. From “You couldn’t change my mind if you talked for a hundred years” and “We don’t owe this kid a thing” to “Maybe we should talk about it” and “We have a job to do, let’s do it” to the final “Let him live,” the emotional progression is an incredible thing to watch.
The end result is a powerful and thought-provoking evening at the theater. The endless clapping at the end of the first act and the standing ovation at the end of Saturday’s opening night performance was most well deserved.
The cast: Joseph Cavagnet, Leonard DeLorenzo, Jack Green, John McNamara, Steven Uihlein, Jim Pearsall, Michael Newman, Steve Ayle, Jules Jacobs, Gene Durney, David Altman, Michael Mingoia and Alan Schelp
Sponsored by Bridgehampton National Bank for the third year in a row, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “12 Angry Men” through May 5. Running time is two hours and 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with the musical comedy whodunit “Curtains” from May 19 to June 23. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.
All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.