By Sharon Geltner
“One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully. If there is a reasonable doubt — then you must bring me a verdict of ‘not guilty.‘”
The judge’s instructions open Twelve Angry Men, the classic American drama by Reginald Rose, set in a dingy conference room in 1954. The Palm Beach Dramaworks production is so successful the theater has extended its run, adding three more performances, ending Dec. 29.
The plot: can one man sway a jury deliberating the fate of a 16-year-old charged with Murder One, knifing his father in the chest? Mandatory death sentence. And the vote for the electric chair must be 12-0.
PBD’s scenic designer, Victor A. Becker, realistically evokes the Eisenhower era with a scuffed wooden table, burnt-out light bulb, mismatched chairs, late afternoon sunlight filtered through slats and a view of the Woolworth Building as thunderclouds gather on the hottest day of the year.
One juror predicts they’ll be home in time for dinner. Another says he can attend the Yankees-Cleveland game at 8 pm. A lone juror says the boy deserves at least five minutes of talk.
There’s no air conditioning and one broken fan. The men remove their gray suit jackets and blot their faces with handkerchiefs. A wall clock runs on real time.
The guard locks them in.
PBD chose this play because of its relevance. However, this 68-year-old play goes beyond trends — it is actually literature, with deep insights into human nature and social justice. It will be relevant generations from now, as will the 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.
Every PBD actor rises to the level of the high-quality script. All frequent performers at PBD, everyone gave excellent performances, building tension for the entire 90 minutes. They listened intently and their facial expressions signaled which way their vote might go. Then some exploded, shouting threats and stabbing the table with knives. The audience was riveted.
Standouts include PBD’s producing artistic director William Hayes, who played Juror 3 (the “last angry man.”) Hayes has directed 50 productions for the company but hasn’t performed in many years and hadn’t appeared on this particular stage.
Rob Donohoe, Juror 10, was also exceptional. His character may seem the most revanchist, which may make him the most current. He comes across as QAnon, except more articulate and coherent. After he shouts, “Get them before they get us!” he collapses into a chair. His hand twitches and he is trembling.
With rage? Strong emotions? Or is it that he loudly and publicly expressed his darkest, innermost emotions and may feel shame or regret?
The audience can only guess.
But critics assume they know. The typical thinking is that our generation is much more enlightened and improved than those gone by. That is true in terms of expanding jury service from a dozen white men to people from all walks of life. (In Twelve Angry Men, a juror who grew up in a slum provides crucial knowledge on knife fights and stab wounds.)
There may be one college degree in the 1954 jury that included of a stockbroker, watchmaker, owner of three-garage body shops, “marmalade salesman,” architect, messenger service owner and assistant high school football coach (and no influencers, data analysts, publicists, school administrators, politicians, lawyers or college professors.)
But have we really improved? How would Rose write a legal drama today?
Nowadays, Juror 10 could post his views online anonymously from the comfort of his home and potentially reach an audience of millions.
And in 2022, many jurors have existed mostly via screens (video games, social media, remote work – if they are employed.) They are often uncomfortable making eye contact and speaking face to face. Imagine strenuous debate and controversy among people who rarely interact with other human beings in real life.
And what if a juror mispronounced someone’s name, then triggered a viral shaming? Just the threat of negative tweets by strangers, which could cost him his job and reputation and perhaps home and family, would be enough to inhibit frank dialogue.
And how would Rose write for 21st-century jurors? Two cases would present a huge challenge for him:
The jury that recently spared the life of the Parkland school shooter who had pleaded guilty to murdering 17 (and shooting another 17.) After a three-month trial, a holdout stopped debate when declaring she would never vote for execution because the shooter had a mental illness.
As a juror exclaims in Twelve Angry Men, “Psychiatry. What a racket! I wouldn’t give a nickel for a psychiatrist to testify.”
And what would Rose make of the Baltimore jury who apparently didn’t deliberate much when teenaged Adnan Syed was jailed for killing his ex-girlfriend? In that case, it took a true crime podcast and an HBO series to create enough pressure to free him.
Rose was inspired to write Twelve Angry Men by his own stint on jury duty in New York in 1954. “It was a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room,” he recalled.
In the meantime, PBD has extended the play by three performances that it predicts will sell out. Get your ticket for December 28-9.
TWELVE ANGRY MEN runs through Dec. 29 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Sharon Geltner is the author of Charity Bashed, a Palm Beach mystery, available on Amazon.