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article imageReview: ‘Twelve Angry Men’ remains powerful in flawed Toronto production Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jun 20, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - A stinging, gripping defence of presumption of innocence, “Twelve Angry Men” hasn’t lost any of its guts after nearly 60 years. It’s a credit to Reginald Rose’s sharp writing that the play overcomes the flaws of Soulpepper’s production.
If you’re too familiar with the classic Sidney Lumet film — which boasts cement-thick tension and great, raw performances by Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and several others — then director Alan Dilworth’s more casually paced take might let you down. But Toronto theatre company Soulpepper’s new staging (which opened on Tuesday night) has its own merits, including a strong lead turn by Stuart Hughes in the Fonda role. As Juror #8, the holdout juror in a capital murder case arguing the possibility of the 16-year-old defendant’s innocence, Hughes borrows some of Fonda’s unpretentious, folksy charm, but adds a bit more Gary Cooper-like crustiness to the character. He’s a man so sincere and well-intended in his mission that you can’t stop yourself from rooting for him.
But Hughes isn’t the top scene stealer in this production. That honour belongs to William Webster as Juror #10, a miserable old racist whose rants against “these people” are full of frighteningly believable paranoia. “You think too much, you get mixed up,” he says at one point. There’s a stretch in the play’s second act when Webster delivers an angry monologue on his beliefs about the defendant’s race, a speech so cringe-worthy that it causes the other characters — even the ones who still agree with his stance on the case — either to retire to the washroom or to turn their backs on him. You can feel the same discomfort in the audience.
Originally produced in truncated form as a live TV play in 1954 before Rose expanded it for the stage the following year, Twelve Angry Men may be the epitome of “deceptively simple.” It’s just a 90-minute jury session in real time, in which the 12 unnamed men argue about whether the defendant, a teenage slum kid of unstated ethnicity, stabbed his father after an abusive argument. Because the death penalty is mandatory for a conviction, the stakes are high. (When Joseph Ziegler’s Juror #3 criticizes #8’s need for pinpoint accuracy, the latter replies, “I think testimony that can put a boy into the electric chair should be that accurate.”)
At first, #8 is the only one voting not guilty, but he begins to convert the others, one by one, using logic and empathy to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. “We have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system,” he says. “No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.” The machinery of the plot’s easy to spot, and you can figure out early on exactly where it’s going, but it works nonetheless.
Twelve Angry Men isn’t just a great drama; it’s also a compelling argument against capital punishment — and in favour of the judicial principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” “The burden of proof is on the prosecution,” #8 explains. “The defendant doesn’t even have to open his mouth. That’s in the Constitution.” But it’s worth noting that although presumption of innocence is still officially considered the standard of the civilized justice world, it’s not exactly fashionable these days as far as public opinion is concerned.
More and more, particularly when it comes to sexual crimes, you hear activists, journalists and college campuses calling for a new standard of “Believe the Accuser” — in which, as I understand it, the accuser’s charge is always taken as indisputable gospel, no matter what the evidence shows. It’s not politically correct anymore to have Juror #8’s respect for the rights of the accused; much current thinking states that the onus should be on the defendant’s side to prove that he or she didn’t commit the crime. We saw this very loudly and dramatically a few months ago, in the media kerfuffle over the revived Woody Allen rape allegations. (But I’m not saying Allen didn’t do it, okay? He likely did! Calm down!) This is one way in which contemporary audiences may find this play slightly outdated.
Another, more obvious way is that it’s about 12 angry men. As in the original teleplay, the Lumet movie and even the 1997 TV remake, Soulpepper’s jury is made up entirely of males. Why? Even in keeping the 1950s setting, would it really be that hard to pull a sex change on a few of the characters and adapt the script into Twelve Angry Jurors? (Even in the ’50s, women were allowed to serve on American juries, believe it or not.) A whole world of varying human experience and traits are represented in these characters, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same with both genders.
But never mind the politics for now. Besides Hughes and Webster, Soulpepper regular Jordan Pettle also deserves acting laurels for the sensitive touch he adds to Juror #11, a polite immigrant watchmaker who’s grateful for the (perceived) fairness of the American justice system. Meanwhile, Cyrus Lane’s Juror #7 — a sports nut who talks in baseball metaphors and just wants the session to end so he can get to a game — has potential, but Lane’s wise-ass Brooklyn accent seems a tad contrived. Tony DeSantis plays the jury foreman as a little too straight and no-nonsense, missing the self-deprecating likeability that Martin Balsam once brought to the role. And Ziegler, whose bitter, vengeful #3 becomes #8’s main antagonist, plays the man as too one-dimensional; there should be a sympathetic layer of pain underneath his simmering rage, in order to make his later epiphany more believable.
The pacing of the dialogue could use some work, particularly in the first act, which seems rushed at times: Dilworth has actors shoot lines back and forth at each other mechanically, with few pauses or breaks and with important reactions muted. Some wonderful lines and moments are lost to the audience because they don’t get the emphasis they deserve — such as when #8 tells elderly Juror #9 (Robert Nasmith) not to respond to #7’s ignorance because, “He can’t hear you. He never will.”
Dilworth divides the audience in two sections with the stage in the middle; despite the awkwardness of having actors occasionally with their backs to half the audience and blocking others, it’s probably the best way to present this setting, since much of the action takes place with the actors seated around a long jury table. The plain blue walls on the sides of Yannik Larivee’s set and the businesslike shirt-and-tie costumes (also designed by Larivee) create a properly stiff, conformist 1950s feel, as does the Dragnet-like music that opens both acts.
But Dilworth and Larivee err in the second act by creating a rain effect falling in front of both stage fronts. It looks cool at first, but it’s distracting, and it also gives the impression that the characters are in the rain rather than indoors and sheltered from it. Simple sound effects of thunder and rain would have more than sufficed.
Imperfect as this production is, you can still sense the grip it has on the audience — it’s a thriller of deathly consequences that never leaves the same claustrophobic, windowless room. It’s also proof that a solid, passionate script is the key to great drama, and it’s why Twelve Angry Men will continue to be an important work in spite of changing norms and beliefs.
Twelve Angry Men runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until July 19.
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