The ver­dict is ... plenty of riv­et­ing drama

Elmira The­atre Com­pany set to stage the land­mark court­room story 12 An­gry Men, based on the clas­sic 1957 movie

The Woolwich Observer - - THE ARTS - STEVE KANNON

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 1-800265-8977, on­line at www.cen­tre-square.com or www.elmi­rathe­atre.com.

[STEVE KANNON]

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.

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