Saturday night, I journeyed out to the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene to see 12 Angry Men. I must applaud Lake City Playhouse for finding 12 competent men to fill the bill. It's obvious that the Lake City has a community that supports its little theater.
This is not a long play, but it tells an intriguing story. My expectations of a dry courtroom drama were overcome, and I was quickly drawn into the conflict. The play immediately reminds us just how easily human beings judge one another -- we are so eager to label a person by ethnicity, religion, neighborhood or just by the company one keeps. The script frequently mentions that we live in a democracy where a person is innocent until proven guilty. But sometimes a case looks like a no-brainer, as does the case before our onstage jury, in which a 19-year-old boy is on trial for stabbing his father.
At the beginning, the judge tells the jurors through a voice-over that their decision must be unanimous. And it looks close to being so when 11 members of the jury find him guilty. But the twelfth juror, an architect, disagrees, throwing the jury room into uproar as the jury foreman and the rest of his peers try to convince him otherwise. The play asks us to examine the evidence for ourselves, just as it asks us to look at our ability to think with both logic and emotion.
This play began its life as a television drama written by Reginald Rose; adapted by Sherman Sergel, it has become a classic portrayal of a jury and the American justice system. Most of you know the movie by the same name, but this reviewer must admit, it was my first voyage into this material.
The Lake City production is directed by Charles I. Gift, the theater's technical director. I believe it's one of his first ventures into directing since his college days at Gonzaga. Directing is a craft that takes a long time to master, much like acting, and I'm sure we'll see more of Gift's work as he grows and takes on more projects. He is fortunate to have a very fine piece of literature and 12 able actors. The play flowed fairly well, although there were some moments when the hand of the director was very obvious. One hopes that there is a blending of the actor and director into a seamless tapestry.
You could describe the set as minimalist: a table, 12 chairs, a fan, an easel (which should have been brought in later in the action), a water cooler and one window. It's all you need, but you do need the actors to engage in activities that make their confinement believable, and each has the responsibility to create a character literally in a vacuum. We know nothing about these men -- like what they do outside of this small space -- but we begin to make judgments based on their behavior. And, indeed, they are making an important judgment: whether this young man on trial is guilty or innocent.
The drama held my interest. And I honestly had no idea how it would turn out. There were some powerful moments when the men were able to inhabit the space with actions and movements that communicated to us the urgency of the situation -- like when the ad man drew on a yellow pad, or when the immigrant gentleman (with all the humorous lines) reminded us of our democratic system or the outburst of the bigot. Since they didn't give names, I had code names for them all: the Foreman, Macho Man, the Button Down guy, the Suit, the Dignified Old Man, the Outsider and the Dissenter.
Mention must go to several of the men for very convincing performances: Al Potts, Russ Haleen, Daniel Cottrell, Vince Aurora and Darrell Louks were particularly effective. Don Lynn, Ed Muehlbach and Jeff Knapp offered solid support work, and Mark Hartley, Marvin Tyack and Gerald Cantrall completed the puzzle. There were only a few moments at the top of Act One and during Act Two when energy lagged, but most of the time the men kept the tension and brought the drama to the climax and resolution -- in this case, the final verdict.
Aristotle says in his Poetics that one of drama's goals is to teach us, along with entertaining us. This is one play that points out that we all need to suspend our judgments and be open to all possibilities.