Tuesday, January 25, 2011

REVIEW: 'Twelve Angry Men' at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota

Jud Williford, left, as Juror Eight in 'Twelve Angry Men." Photo by Frank Atura.

A poignant, deceptively simple gesture concludes the Asolo Repertory’s exhilarating production of “Twelve Angry Men,” playing at the Mertz Theatre in Sarasota through March 26.

A small act of kindness shared by two fellows. One helps another into his jacket. Nothing special.

Except that these two guys have just spent 90 minutes vehemently debating whether they will sentence a troubled teenager to death. The other 10 jurors joust as well, but not with the determination of this pair. At one point, the opponents appear ready to trade blows — or worse.

Antagonists driven by honest emotions and, in the case of the most excitable Juror Three (James Clarke), a past demon that hits close to the case, make peace without uttering a word. Tiny, terrific moments such as the moving final action pepper this superb staging of “Twelve Angry Men,” directed by Tony Award-winner Frank Galati.

Jud Williford (as Juror Eight) and Clarke, who have the richest roles, turn in tour de force performances — but singling them out almost seems like an injustice to the rest of this commendable cast. Every juror in the Asolo Rep's production of Reginald Rose's popular television (and film) drama from the 1950s, which finally debuted on Broadway in 2004, deserves the standing ovation they received during a recent staging.

Best known for the 1957 movie directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda as Juror Eight with Lee J. Cobb as Juror Three, “Twelve Angry Men” holds a special place in the pantheon of American dramas. No other film or play does such an excellent job of putting the audience in a sweltering jury room and allowing us to feel the tension that accompanies making a life or death decision. “Twelve Angry Men"'s ‘50s New York setting does little, if anything, to diminish its relevance.

At the Mertz Theatre, dozen white men of various ages, looking exactly as one would picture fellows of the era thanks to Mara Blumenfeld's costumes and Michelle Hart's wig/hair design, file onto a stage decorated as a wonderfully drab jury room by Russell Metheny. They must decide whether a 16-year-old black youth murdered his father. At the start, only Juror Eight has reasonable doubt.

The truth twists and reshapes like Silly Putty. Insults fly. By the end, though, something closer to concrete regarding the events in question emerges. Beliefs reluctantly change. The joy, though, comes more from watching the jurors personalities come to life than the meting out of justice, which, and this enhances rather than hinders the play, never manifests itself fully.   

It’s an edge-of-your-seat, one-room journey featuring fiery performances. Williford deftly plays the hero as an endearing everyman who, albeit being written as one-dimensional in its nobility, never allows his character to come across as cloyingly saintly. Clarke, meanwhile, crushes as the scoundrel with soul. He makes you long for the foreshadowed meltdown and then nails it. No easy task.

While Williford’s Juror Eight fights the good fight, Juror 10 qualifies as the play's lone villain. He owns garages, talks rough Brooklynese and wants a guilty verdict because he’s a bigot with kooky ideas about a minority takeover. Douglas Jones makes you loathe his character's words without creating a devilish cartoon. Instead, his convincing performance reminds the audience of not only the prejudice that pervaded the ’50s but the racism that, sadly, continues to taint courtroom decisions today.

Fresh face Dane Dandridge shines as Juror Six, whose character grows the most throughout the play. Elderly Juror Nine, played with virtuosity by Asolo Rep veteran David Howard, softly steals every scene in which he has more than a line. John Arnold excels as the immigrant Juror 11, who extols this country’s less-than-perfect legal system with laudable conviction — even if the more cynical members of the audience might wince at a mini monologue that smacks of quaint patriotism.

"Twelve Angry Men" offers a dozen outstanding, nuanced performances. The body language alone makes it worth seeing. The way the actors listen (lean forward, nod, shake their heads, etc.), chew a piece of gum, grab a cough drop, pace, or help another man put on his jacket says as much about where they're at mentally and emotionally as anything in the script. In doing so, Galati and cast greatly justify experiencing — or perhaps reexamining — an American classic.

Click for showtimes/tickets.

Frank Galati discusses "Twelve Angry Men"with clips from Asolo Rep production

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