Although written 68 years ago, Reginald Rose’s jury room melodrama Twelve Angry Men is surprisingly apt to our current social and political Zeitgeist. So says Palm Beach Dramaworks’ producing artistic director William Hayes, who had been planning to revive the play two years from now during the stage company’s 25th anniversary season.
“With all that’s going on, the gender and race politics going on today, I find that it’s quite relevant right now,” he says. Hayes and Dramaworks’ resident director J. Barry Lewis considered moving the play forward in time “for about two seconds. We set it during the Eisenhower era, which was the height of white male dominance in the country, when the nation was great — if you were a white male,” explains Hayes. “The idea of diversity in that period was different socioeconomic classes of white men. So to produce it now has become a social criticism of the period.”
Lewis points out that 1954 was “an important year in the sense of the beginnings of civil rights — ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ — and what power that has. There was also, on the flip side, the Red Scare, the House Un-American Activities (Committee). Think about what was happening in terms of two sides of the spectrum there, what these people were being bombarded with.”
Rose’s play was first seen on television, on CBS’s Studio One anthology series, in 1954, with Franchot Tone and Robert Cummings heading an ensemble cast. Three years later, it was adapted into a movie with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. Although Rose fashioned a stage version in the mid-1950s, Twelve Angry Men did not debut on Broadway until 2004, with Philip Bosco, Boyd Gaines and others.
Because the play has so many well-written, dimensional roles, Hayes thought, “Wouldn’t this be nice to do as a reunion production, with 12 or 13 men who have been featured on our stage over the years.” Local theatergoers will recognize such frequent performers from past Dramaworks shows as Jim Ballard, Dennis Creaghan, Rob Donohoe, Matthew Korinko, Michael McKeever. John Leonard Thompson and, in his return to acting after many years, Hayes.
“Barry has tried to talk me into getting back onstage a few times, and I realized I’ve never appeared on our current stage. And this I just couldn’t resist,” Hayes says. “I play the bully of the group, which has been a lot of fun. He’s the loudest member of the jury, but volume doesn’t mean that you’re right.”
“I sat down and looked at these 12 or 13 actors: How many (Dramaworks) plays do they represent? It comes out to be about 63,” notes Lewis. “That’s staggering to me. So we have this large range over 21 years of seeing these gentlemen onstage.”
McKeever, an accomplished playwright as well as a frequent actor, plays a meek banker who is serving on his first jury. “So he’s learning about the system and how it works. Not only that, he’s a bit overwhelmed, just by the nature of the much stronger characters and personalities that are in the room. But over the course of the 90-95 minutes that the deliberation takes, he becomes more and more self-assured, more aware of his voice, and the value of it.”
McKeever acknowledges that the style and dialogue of Twelve Angry Men is showing its age. “Well, the writing certainly captures a time and place in America, but at the same time many of the issues that it addresses sadly have not changed, or just changed slightly. It certainly paints a very specific picture of the 1950s,” he says. “As a writer, I love that, going into history and seeing how it applies to the world of today. Even though the language, the phrases, are very much of that era, in any good production, you bring life to it, you give it bones and sinew and you make it human. What’s being said becomes much more important than the way it’s being said.”
“It is very much of its era, there’s no doubt about it,” agrees Lewis. “But beyond the dramatic structure and the way ideas are presented, you could almost study it as a piece in group dynamics. And that doesn’t change. Even today, when you pit 12 random individuals into a space, and they have to create a solution before they are able to leave that space, that is group dynamics, and that is one of the powers of this particular work.”
Although some productions of the play have included women on the jury, Lewis feels that Rose intentionally wrote it for an all-male cast because “it allowed the men to speak more openly and sometimes more aggressively than potentially if a woman were present.” And in his pre-production examination of the time period, he found Rose’s decision plausible.
Women “were available to be jurors ever since they had the right to vote, but the reality of their serving was seldom and few and far between,” says Lewis. “In my research I found that women were considered and pretty much always dismissed. The feeling was that they were needed in the house, to run the house. That was considered a higher calling.”
Ultimately, Twelve Angry Men suggests that despite its shortcomings, our justice system works. “Certainly in the case of the trial that the play’s about, it does,” says McKeever. “I think it underscores, more than I ever realized before, the flaws in the judicial system. But for all the other ways that justice is dealt with in the history of the world, I think it’s pretty solid. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but it’s better than so many other attempts or processes that have been tried.”
Even if you have seen Twelve Angry Men before — onstage or at the movies — and you recall the homicide case’s outcome, Lewis feels you can still enjoy a return visit to that jury room.
“Like an old friend, we remember a good book, we remember a good movie, a good play that we’ve seen. We revisit old friends, even though we know the story,” he says. “We remember the premise and the result, but we don’t necessarily know how we get there. I think audiences will be seriously surprised about how the result comes about. We don’t remember who these people are necessarily and what drives each of them to make the choices that they do.
“Therein lies, for me, the play. Not the final decision, but in the process.”
TWELVE ANGRY MEN, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. From Friday, Dec. 9, to Saturday, Dec. 24. $84. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.