Center Stage Theater has been transformed for this excellent production of Twelve Angry Men. With seats on every side and the jury table just steps from the front rows, it seems as though the recorded jury instructions that play as one enters could be directed at the audience. First a guard (Gene Garcia) distributes legal pads to each of the 12 seats at the table, and then suddenly the room becomes crowded as jurors enter and circle the space, wiping their brows and breaking into small conversation groups. Gradually, through the intricate counterpoint of overlapping dialogue, the monstrous crime under consideration is revealed when one of the white-shirted men says to another, “Still, it’s an awful way to kill your father-with a knife in the chest.” And from there we are off and running, drawn in to the wild ride that is this dramatic jury’s journey toward justice.
The first ballot immediately puts the unnamed defendant in a precarious position-11-1 in favor of a guilty verdict in this case of first degree murder. When Juror 8 (Brian Harwell) identifies himself as the lone dissenter, his reservations are very poorly received. Half of those present don’t want to hear about his doubts, and some, like Juror 3 (Ed Giron), seem ready to punch him. But a few-like the impressionable but perceptive Juror 2 (Alfred St. John Smith) and the stalwart and fair Juror 9 (Tim Whitcomb)-have enough independence to stand apart from the mob. Soon, Juror 8 has blown big holes in the prosecution’s case. With the help of some object lessons in how not to handle the responsibility of jury duty from hot-headed Juror 3 and racist Juror 10 (Bill Waxman), the entire group gradually traverses the gap between reactionary assumptions and reasonable doubts.
Katie Laris pulls off a directorial coup by bringing this talented cast to such delightfully vibrant life. There are no weak links here-Mark Lee, Ben Chang, Jerry Oshinsky, George Coe, Clyde Sacks, Stuart Orenstein, and Wilson Smith all deserve the standing ovation they received on Saturday for keeping the focus on the outcome, which, despite the play’s familiarity, seems to remain up for grabs until the very end. And finally, Harwell is terrific in the role made famous by Henry Fonda. When Harwell leaves after his final lines, a sharp outburst of breath expresses his triumph as relief. It’s the victory sign of a reluctant, yet very serious, American hero.