Few scripts are as universally lauded as Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men. A tense drama driven entirely by conversation, the plot follows white 12 jurors in 1950’s America who are preparing to sentence a non-white, formerly convicted criminal to death around a small table in the sweltering heat of summer. The vote is unanimously in favor of execution – save for one man.
It’s an easy enough setup, but the beauty here is in the details. There are no extraneous details, no clear cut metaphors in the shape of characters; moments of silence, even, are nonexistent. The script is built from pure, authentically written battles of ideology, critical thinking, and unshakable passion.
Lora Oxenreiter’s production over at McKeesport Little Theater is actually slightly sparser than even the Sidney Lumet directed film, as it’s missing a set for the bathroom. Additionally, the small room in which the deliberations take place can actually feel quite large thanks to some hawk-eyed cinematography, and characters split off into different portions of the room as their hour and a half conversation continues. The space at MLT is even tighter, and has been split into three sections: the window, the table, and the corner of the room.
This minimized version of 12 Angry Men’s sweaty anger box actually reveals some things about the script’s structure. The window, our only view to the outside world, is a space characters only inhabit to cool their anger by escaping the other 11 men. The table, obviously, is where most everyone is all the time. The corner, the deepest part of the room, is essentially the ‘let’s split up and commune privately’ section. These spaces, then, roughly equate to a space for self-reflection, a space for public conversation, and a space for private commune. It’s a neat simplification of this space that distills its (easily extrapolated) visualization of individualism versus group think, as the tenor of conversation between these spaces differs greatly.
That said, this limited space is problematic as well. The Little Theater isn’t setup as a theater-in-the-round – this means half of the cast perform the play with their backs turned towards the audience. Besides the obvious problems this odd setup creates, it ends up visually removing some of the men in a way that can minimize the drama.
There were a few performance hiccoughs the cast appeared to be working through during their debut (on November 4th) as well, specifically with actors sometimes trampling over their lines or unnecessarily hanging onto certain moments. No actor slowed the production to a halt or anything, but the play did have a certain stutter in its rhythm. 12 Angry Men is snappy and immediate, so any deviance from the fast pace can make the impassioned arguments feel structured or prepared, and removes them of their import.
Oxenreiter’s sense of direction is an important element of the play’s success. I could feel in each actor’s performance a reliance on naturalism above all else, and a dedication to both organic immediacy and faithful recreation. The script’s amazing representation of personal bias and cultural suppression is woven into these performers. You can see the hesitancy to stand alone a life of hardship can instill in a man in Juror #5 (Justin Kofford). The calm rationale of a natural-born teacher or manager in Juror #1 (Tom Sarp). The comfort in espousing intellect above all else in a dangerous situation a life of prosperity instilled in Juror #4 (Johnny Terreri).
Following the caustic nature of the 2016 election, 12 Angry Men’s themes of thoughtful response and collaboration in the face of deep polarization are more essential than they ever have been. During an interview I conducted a few months ago, producer Linda L. Baker assured me the choice to put on this socially conscious work so close to Election Day was not out of some pointed commentary, and instead the result of the theater’s tradition of mixing stone-cold theatrical classics with one remarkably unconventional work during its seasons. Still, I have very little doubt that each and every audience member will bring their political protest, fear and hope to their viewing of the work. In each heated exchange will lie a reminder of what will, for many of us, surely be the least appealing Thanksgiving dinner in history. But watch closely at how all the anger and debate between classes and culture transform anew into collaboration and strength; perhaps 12 Angry Men, for Pittsburghers at this very moment of history, is a story worth revisiting.
Special thanks to the McKeesport Little Theater for complimentary press tickets. 12 Angry Men runs through November 20th, tickets and more information can be found here.