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‘Twelve Angry Men’ sweat out the truth at Laguna Playhouse

By Jackie Moe
For more than six decades, a dozen actors have taken the stage to lay it all out on the line – frustration, perspiration and speculation – in the iconic play “Twelve Angry Men.” The jury room drama is currently being presented at the Laguna Playhouse, and director Michael Matthews feels the story is as relevant as it has ever been.

“This play was written 60 years ago and sadly, it could have been written yesterday,” said Matthews, “We have not changed that much as human beings.  There is still a hatred, a fear and a privilege that seems determined to completely divide us.”

An all-star cast will make up the twelve jurors in the courtroom drama, including actor Seamus Deaver (ABC’s “Castle”) and Erik Odom (“Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2”). The play opened on Sunday, Oct. 8 and will run through Oct. 22.

Deaver, who plays the part of “Juror Number Eight,” the one juror out of the dozen who is the voice of doubt in the room, said he has never performed in a play this intense.

“I’m talking an hour and a half, no intermission, no exits, no breaks in action, a rollercoaster ride where you’re solving a problem over a boardroom table,” he said. “It’s a crucible of personalities or a cage match of doubt and ideas. There’s no real chance to catch your breath and take stock of what just happened or what’s about to happen.”

Written by Reginald Rose, the story was originally presented as a televised play on CBS’s “Studio One” in 1954, before it was adapted in a stage play in 1955. The play is famous in the theater world – produced on Broadway, off-Broadway, national tours and countless regional theater productions – and was made into an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, starring Henry Fonda, in 1957.

Taking place in a jury room in 1957 New York City, the play presents a deliberation among jurors determining whether a 16-year-old boy is guilty of murdering his father. The play portrays an intense battle of questioning whether or not there is reasonable doubt to the boy’s story versus the story presented in the courtroom.

“I think the internet has this braveness of anonymity that allows us to not worry about the consequence of saying how we really feel about things. In this play, there are 12 people looking each other in the eye; all trapped in a room together and there is no escape from the consequence of your words,” said Deaver.

Matthews wanted to make sure the audience not only experiences a set that looks authentic to a jury room in the 1950s, but can also see and feel the passion of the actors.

“My vision was to keep things incredibly naturalistic and super specific; to the stains on the walls, to the water in the sink.  I want for you to feel like you are watching 12 creatures released into a Petri dish for the first time,” said Matthews, “The set is framed much like a pressure cooker with heat outside and thickness in the air.  The audience will see a lot of sweat.”

The 12-member cast also includes Richard Burgi, John Colella, Rick Cosnett, Mueen Jahan, David Nvell, Dennis Renard and Tony Sancho. Laguna Playhouse returning actors include Andy Barnicle, Daniel Berlin and John Massey.

The large ensemble will sit in matching chairs at a long wooden table on stage, which allows the audience to see each of the actor’s faces.

“My favorite moments of the show are the silences.  We have a few very specific moments where you could cut through the air with a knife,” Matthews said. “In these silences, the actors encounter another level of tension and emotional tradition that is quite compelling to watch.”

Odom, who performs as “Juror Number Twelve” said he was driven to perform in this play after he was introduced to the story by his grandfather when he was 6 years old.

“(He) first showed me the film as an example of great acting. He passed away last year. The offer to do this production came in on what would have been his 81st birthday. This show is for him,” Odom said.

Matthews said he hopes the play, known for its powerful depiction of the American justice system and its examination of human nature, will inspire conversation about today’s divided society.

“The play explores and deals with racism full on.  Also, classism and ageism,” said Matthews, “Why are we so afraid of the things that are different from us? What does it take to listen, to understand and fully hear another human being?