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BWW Review: 12 Reasons Why You Should See Stageworks' Explosive Production of 12 ANGRY MEN

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Powerful and Pertinent.

BWW Review: 12 Reasons Why You Should See Stageworks' Explosive Production of 12 ANGRY MEN

"This is the most important thing I will do all year." --A fellow juror to me during a Los Angeles murder trial in 1994.

"This whole thing's unimportant." --Juror #12 in 12 ANGRY MEN

The one time I was a juror in a murder trial, directly opposite the OJ Simpson proceedings in Los Angeles in 1994, we played out our own version of Reginald Rose's iconic 12 ANGRY MEN. On trial was a young black man for shooting and killing the owner of a Mexican restaurant. No DNA, no fingerprints, and the only witness said that they could not tell people of color apart. We--a jury of mixed ethnicities and genders--deliberated for many, many days. We had the wishy-washy juror who kept changing their vote (like Juror #12) as well as a highly bigoted juror (like Juror #10) who actually told us, "I knew the defendant was guilty the moment I laid eyes on him!" There was the juror who argued for a guilty verdict using facts (like Juror #4), an older juror (like Juror #9), and several working class jurors (like Jurors #5 and #6). All that was missing was a resentful juror crying over their "lousy" kid (like Juror #3). Two of us were trying to play the part of the thoughtful Juror #8 but to no avail. We ended up as a hung jury.

In 12 ANGRY MEN, luckily for the defendant--an unspecified minority on trial in 1957 for the (offstage) murder of his father--Juror #8 is there among the twelve all-white, all-male jurors to make sure a fair verdict ensues. He is the lone hold out, voting "not guilty" when eleven others are sure of the boy's guilt in this death penalty case. And we watch as the dominos fall, and reason takes over the heated passions of these knee-jerk jurors. It's like a table of Alpha Males being tamed by a thoughtful Beta.

Although I've seen several productions of 12 ANGRY MEN, and have taught the script to middle schoolers since the late 1980's, it never gets old.

It's taken Stageworks 22 months to put on this production of 12 ANGRY MEN. I looked forward to it in the spring of 2020, and when the pandemic shut all the theatres down completely, it was one of the shows I was most despondent over missing. That's why I am so thankful that I got to see the production last night. 12 actors, all at the top of their games, fighting to be heard in this crazy world. It's a beautifully realized production, marvelously directed, and should be required viewing in this day and age of tribalism in a world where the passionate intensity of our lesser devils guides us instead of the thoughtfulness of our better angels.

Here are 12 reasons why you shouldn't miss this production...

1. Ned Averill-Snell as Juror #8. When I first heard that Mr. Averill-Snell was playing the part made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie, I may have cocked an eyebrow. I thought that he, one of the finest actors in our area, might be more suited for someone like the fiery Juror #3, with that incredible voice that can shake the walls like an old school Baptist preacher. Boy, was I wrong. This performance, one of Mr. Averill-Snell's very best, showcases a versatility that few actors can boast. He is measured, levelheaded, passionate without being a blowhard, sturdy on his feet yet human. And that humanity is what carries the performance--he is saving a young life. You sense the quiet decency of the man, a moral code, a strength of purpose where you don't need to shout to get your point across--the quiet warrior heard over all those screaming voices. He's out of place in this whirlwind of rabidity; it would be like Jon Meacham calming the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6th of last year. And he takes his time, keeping it slow in a room of frantic men frothing at the mouth. It's incredible to watch as this lamb turns the wolves into sheep, one by one.

2. Jim Wicker as Juror #3. Mr. Wicker is a towering presence, and Juror #3 is a towering part--a monster of sorts in the wrong hands. Yes, he's a bully, using this trial to symbolically punish his own son. Yes, he's unreasonable, hot-headed, deaf to the truth. But he's also human. We glimpse this early on, when he brings up his son, and you can hear him choke up a bit. The unresolved sadness over this loss--he hasn't spoken to his boy in two years--gives way to feverish anger and resentment, where he is accused of being a sadist. He's out of control emotionally, and Wicker captures this perfectly. He's on a personal crusade; vengeance at all costs--he'll gladly play executioner. But his best moment is saved for the end. Juror #3 can be a hateful part--but there's a moment where we feel sorry for this bigger-than-life bully. Lee J. Cobb is a tremendous actor who made Juror #3 so memorable in the original film version, but I never felt sorry for the character. I never teared up over his plight. I did here. Mr. Wicker, another one of our area's finest actors, takes his time, not rushing things, so we get the full effect of his turmoil. Even though the part is painted with extremely broad strokes, this brilliant portrayal proves that even the most obnoxious among us can be redeemed.

3. Paul Palmisano as Juror #10. If you like villains, then Juror #10 is your man. Circling the other jurors like a vengeful vulture, ready to swoop down on his prey, he's always on the attack. The audience is torn--because here's a character who is so hateful, a true racist, and yet he's also so entertaining to watch. Mr. Palmisano owns the stage, and there's a great nonverbal moment of his when Juror #10 crumbles a paper cup and drops it on the ground--like a proto mic drop. His long racist rant near the end is chilling, mainly because it's not lost one ounce of its awful potency. (Sadly, there are people in 2022 who could give that exact same speech.) Mr. Palmisano is quite likable and a true showman, but the role has nowhere to go because he starts it at Level "11" (for you Spinal Tap fans) and keeps his foot on the hate-pedal for the duration of the show.

4. James Fitzgerald Swallow as Juror #7. This is great work, sometimes teetering on the verge of cartoony (think Bugs Bunny chomping on gum instead of a carrot), but always in character, always so much fun to watch. Imagine Eddie Haskell mixed with Beavis, a smartass whose selfishness is shocking when you get down to it (arriving to a ballgame on time is more important to him than some "punk" kid's life). I have never seen this young actor onstage before, but he left a tremendous impression. He was one of the few jurors onstage who felt the "heat" of this blistering hot day in New York City. Perched near the window for much of the play, like a gargoyle in a fishing hat, he crouches there, his gaze darting from juror to juror, rolling his eyes, saying a punchy remark, suddenly bored, suddenly antsy, always annoyed and always annoying. We know what he's thinking even when he doesn't speak. A standout among standouts.

5. Hugh Timoney as Juror #9. As the older juror, Timoney is quite effective, reserving his strength so he can go head to head with the hateful duo of Jurors #3 and #10. When he talks about a lonely old man whose name was never in the paper, we know that Juror #9 is speaking of himself. Mr. Timoney is a quiet presence throughout, but when he stands up to the bullies, it's an extraordinarily powerful moment.

6. GJ Thompson as Juror #4. Juror #4--a snobby broker who doesn't seem to sweat (until he's under pressure, that is)--is thoughtful and measured in much the same way as Juror #8 is; he's just on the side of a "guilty" verdict. Mr. Thompson is perfectly cast here, rarely raising his voice, assured in his position without resorting to the belligerence of the other jurors. You sense the intelligence of the man, the integrity; truly grand work.

7. The rest of the cast. This is one stellar ensemble. Ryan Sturm is strong in the thankless role of Juror #1, the Foreman (he acts as a hapless umpire throughout the show). As the reserved Juror #2, a banker, Ryan-Patrick McLaughlin is always in character, quietly trying to figure out their own positions on the matter. As the juror from the wrong side of the tracks, Juror #5, Lenny Agnello gets to go toe to toe with the crazies, standing up to them strongly, and he does so with aplomb. I love Jakob Nordstrom's understated interpretation of Juror #6 (understated until he challenges Juror #3), and I really like the way he seems to protect the older Juror #9, even at the end; overall nice work (though he is misidentified as Juror #7 in the bio section of the online program). James Risgaard gives a quiet dignity to the immigrant watchmaker, Juror #11, and he even gets a blistering one-liner to Juror #10 that caused some in the audience to applaud. Matt Acquard is solid as the slick, enthusiastic Juror #12, an ad man, though sometimes he spoke so fast that I couldn't understand all of his words. No part is a throwaway; even the guard who keeps bringing in the exhibits is well-played by Harold Oehler.

8. Rosemary Orlando's spot-on direction. The staging is impeccable, the actors moving about like twelve angry chess pieces. There are glorious staging moments, incredible tableaus, and not once did I ever lose focus of who was talking to whom (a tough feat with so many characters onstage at the same time). Early on, when they're all sitting at the long jury room table, it had a feeling of da Vinci's Last Supper set in a Bizarro World--"L'Ultima Cena" of Wrath.

9. Marilyn Gaspardo Bertch's costume designs. The show is set in 1957, and the costumes hit the right note, especially regarding the time period. There are no bright, flamboyant colors. It's pretty much all muted tones--tans, beiges, white shirts, light brown jackets. Only the more seething jurors--#3 and #10--don red neckties. This lack of flash works wonders, contrasting greatly to the colorful personalities onstage at their most volcanic.

10. Frank Chavez's set aided by Jo Averill-Snell's lighting. We really get the claustrophobic sense of a jury room circa 1957--with the long wood table, water cooler, a picture of President Eisenhower over the door, and oversized windows that look like monoliths. Brilliant tech work by all involved.

11. It's live theatre, for God's sake, and it only took 22 months to finally see this show open. The audience members were on the edge of their seats throughout it, some of them on the verge of talking back to those brazen characters onstage. This is a show that should be packed every night. I know people are still afraid to venture outside to see a live show, but masks are required to be worn by the audience. Besides, if you (like millions of others) can crowd into movie theaters watching something like Spider-Man: No Way Home, then nothing should prevent you from seeing this (who knows, it may pack a much bigger punch).

12. The story still seems so damned pertinent. We live in a nation of sharp divides right now, tribalism, with everyone having to choose a side. 65 years ago, when 12 ANGRY MEN is set, things weren't much different: "I don't feel I need to be loyal to one side or the other," Juror #11 poignantly says at one point. In today's world, just as in 12 ANGRY MEN, it's as if everyone is shouting their opinions at the top of their lungs and no one is listening. Facts are twisted, and the louder the shouter, the more press it gets. But there is hope. At the end of 12 ANGRY MEN, two opponents from two extreme sides come together in a quiet act of reconciliation. It's a beautiful moment, and it made me wonder, if two men like that can finally come together, why can't we?

12 ANGRY MEN plays at Stageworks through January 23rd.


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From This Author Peter Nason