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Theater Review: "Twelve Angry Men"

Richard Burgi, Seamus Deaver and the cast of "Twelve Angry Men."
Photo credit:
Ed Kreiger

The life of a 16-year-old boy accused of murdering his father with a switchblade hangs in the balance as a jury decides his innocence or guilt. 

But what’s really on trial are the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” legal standard. 

Reginald Rose’s reworked 1954 “Studio One” TV drama “Twelve Angry Men” plays through Oct. 22 at the Laguna Beach Playhouse.

It’s a period piece, written at the time when the death penalty was mandatory for a murder conviction (struck down by the Supreme Court in 1976) – and when women were seldom impaneled on juries. 

Times have changed, but the issues raised in this play are still with us.

In a hot, dilapidated jury room room in a New York, jurors gather to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The foreman (Matthew Henerson) takes a preliminary vote: 11-1 for a guilty verdict. The lone holdout – Juror #8 (Seamus Dever) –  is an architect who believes that jurors ought not send a defendant to death without at least discussing it.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, sweat drips, tempers flare, and psyches are exposed as these disparate men (who would not likely choose to party together) try to reach not consensus but unanimity. This is a real ensemble piece, but among them certain types are notable. They are called by juror number only. 

Juror Three (Richard Burgi), is a major bigot, quick to anger and condemn, who allows family disappointment to cloud his judgement.

Juror Ten (John Colella) is another bigot, given to the type of “us vs. them” comments that inflame discussions and lead to violence, and are unfortunately still heard often today.

Juror Eleven (Andrew Barnicle) is an elderly gent whom life has passed by; Juror Seven (John Massey) just wants to be done with the process so he can get to the baseball game; Juror Eleven (David Nevell) is an immigrant and watchmaker. Jurors 5 (Dennis Renard) and 6 (Tony Sancho) are the sole jurors of color, a departure from Rose’s original script.

The major evidence comes from two witnesses. One, the neighbor downstairs, said he heard the boy and his father arguing and that the boy said, “I’m gonna kill you,” after which he heard something drop to the floor and, looking out his door, saw the boy running from the building.

The second is a female neighbor who said she saw the murder in the building across from her, through the windows of an elevated train that separates their buildings and was passing at the time.

Though both witnesses indicated certainty, it is these testimonies that will bring discussions of reasonable doubt.

Stephen Gifford’s run-down set, with a water cooler on one side and the washroom on the other, makes you feel it is as stuffy and hot as the script indicates it is, especially when the lone fan doesn’t work. 

“Twelve Angry Men” is not just riveting theater, but a short course in civic responsibility. Future jurors need to hear and assess the validity of comments like “Who else could have done it?” and “No one proved him not guilty.” 

Matthews has a spot-on cast and a terrific script. The result is great theater.

The details

“Twelve Angry Men” runs through October 22, 2017 at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd. in Laguna Beach. 

Thursday at 2 pm; Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 pm.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 1 pm

tickets: www.lagunaplayhouse.com or (949) 497-2787