By Tina Arth
As someone familiar with Henry Fonda’s 1957 film version of Twelve Angry Men, I initially found the title of Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Twelve Angry Jurors a bit jarring - would updating the show diminish its impact? However, this powerful drama is only improved by revising it to reflect current realities (e.g., we allow women on our juries now) – the removal of now-obsolete features serves to illustrate more fully that the central themes are completely relevant in 2015. Rush to judgment? Check. Inequities based on class and economic status? Check. Abusive parents? Check. Racism? Check. Overworked, uninspired public defenders? Check. Ambiguity about the meaning of “reasonable doubt?” Check. Ultimately, good people with good sense prevailing? Well, sometimes check.
Director Kraig Williams has assembled a truly amazing cast, and the result is a riveting show. For two hours we watch the jurors, twelve ordinary Americans drawn from all walks of life, who are closed into a stifling jury room for hours to deliberate the fate of a young man facing the death penalty for allegedly killing his father. Introducing women into the mix (this production peoples its jury with five men and seven women) superficially changes things, but none of the wit, intelligence, callousness, anger, bigotry, pain, and sensitivity of the original show is lost. The universality of these qualities is emphasized by the anonymity of the cast – the jurors have only their juror numbers, and the young man on trial is never given a name or ethnicity - he is just one of “them,” and we all know how “they” are. An inspired twist is portraying juror # 11, typically a German immigrant, as a Muslim woman – in 2015 a much better illustration of the evils of stereotyping (and a clear reminder that some problems of the 1950’s are still with us, despite several decades of “progress”). The jurors begin with a general assumption that it will be a quick guilty verdict, based on the evidence they have heard and their own biases. The first informal poll reveals that they are split 11 – 1 in favor of a guilty verdict – the lone holdout Juror #8, a Physics teacher who believes that the accused deserves a bit more deliberation before being sent to death row. Gradually, in fits and starts, the guilty verdict begins to collapse under the weight of “reasonable doubt” and a growing willingness on the part of the jurors to critically examine the evidence. Ultimately, after a liberal dose of reason and common sense, the group reaches a unanimous “not guilty” verdict.
Jurors #8 (Steve Holgate), #10 (Virginia Howe Kincaid), and #3 (Stan Yeend) provide the show’s principal conflict; other jurors offer more nuanced reactions to the three central characters. Holgate is quietly compelling as a man of conscience and science who cannot allow his fellow jurors to rush to judgment. Kincaid is disturbingly strident as the racist who blithely assumes that everyone secretly shares her vicious perspective. Yeend plays the angriest and most troubled of the group, and reaches frighteningly authentic heights of apoplexy as his character unravels in the face of the other jurors’ obvious aversion to his hate-filled choler.
While there are no weak performances, two other actors merit special mention. As Juror #11, Jessica Reed evolves believably from a retiring hijab-wearing Muslim to a passionate advocate of the best of American democracy; her growing reactions to Kincaid’s worst excesses subtly underscore the play’s themes. Les Ico (# 5) uses his remarkably expressive face to illustrate his character’s growing empathy for the accused, who shares his violent slum upbringing.
While there are several moments of dark humor to relieve the tension, Twelve Angry Jurors is intense and sometimes uncomfortable. However, it is one of the most powerful and provocative dramas I have seen on a BCT stage, and the quality of the production makes it a must-see for local audiences.
Beaverton Civic Theatre presents Twelve Angry Jurors through Saturday, October 17th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.