By Natasha Arora
The Laguna Playhouse's production of "Twelve Angry Men" proves once and for all that the law is never reason free from passion. Reginald Rose's original play inspired a 1957 Oscar-winning film, thousands of pop-culture references, and the definition of a courtroom drama (without actually setting foot in a courtroom). This year's revisit is an explosive reminder of the flaws in justice, and the role of the common man in rectifying them.
Originally written as a television play in 1954, "Twelve Angry Men" follows a jury as it debates the fate of a young man on trial for murder. After the original jurors' vote counts eleven to one in favor of guilty, a single man's doubt floods light onto issues including the death sentence, the damage of obstinacy, xenophobia, and being "sick and tired of facts. You can twist them any way you like". Yet the tone of the play—while often taut, combustible and even desperate—is littered with moments of natural levity, thereby maintaining realism and palatability. Every combative conversation between antagonistic Jurors Three and Ten is diffused by cleverness, grumbles about baseball games, and other stitches of ordinariness that tailor the play to the 1950's, but still keep it relatable.
The strength of each actor's performance lay in his ability to find personality in anonymity. Though two of the characters' names are revealed in the original play and film, in this production, no one is identified beyond a juror number. An interesting directorial decision from Michael Mathews, it shows the audience that anyone can be forced to join a grand jury, and asks how a jury is supposed to remain as impersonal as it was designed to be, when a sixteen-year-old boy's life hangs in the balance. Other most ostensible symptoms of Michael Mathews' seasoned direction lies in the synchronization and rapidity of dialogue, as well as a few choice positioning of characters.
Standout performances included those of the humanitarian Juror Eight (Seamus Dever), pigheaded Juror Three (Richard Burgi), bigoted Juror Ten (John Colella), and immature Juror Seven (John Massey) each of whom confront the audience with its own hypocrisy, and keep "Twelve Angry Men" from dwindling into "Twelve Hollering, Disorganized Fools." Yet while these characters certainly propel the story forward, others subtly ask the audience other questions. The casting of African-American Dennis Renard in a play set in the '50s, is an example of racially inclusive casting, while characterizing him as the slum-born Juror Five demonstrates other common injustices. A compassionate German juror contradicts everything World War II told Americans about Nazis, and simple men who just want to go to a ball game represent the ugliness of selfishness and nonchalance.
Stephen Gifford's scenic design is very conducive to a cramped, vintage setting, alternately crackling with electricity and then cooling down the tension with rain. Kate Bergh's meticulous costume design gives each man a distinct persona to inhabit. The fatherly, temperamental Juror Three wears a double-breasted suit and broad tie, too old fashioned for younger jurors; the German watchmaking Juror Eleven is dressed in a neat, sophisticated vest; Juror Eight, the hero of the story, wears a loose, airy, tan suit and thin tie, contrasting every other man in the room.
Thus, tightly directed, "Twelve Angry Men" juggles a dozen different personalities and issues without dropping any balls. Packing family dynamics, the American Dream, hypocrisy and mercy onto a single stage, the play is most certainly worth the hour drive to Laguna Beach.