Dandy Dozen

Justice is served and sparks fly in Playhouse's Twelve Angry Men.

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Cleveland theater legal eagles Playhouse Square closet stories Through December 9 at the Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Imagine you were on the jury that heard O.J. Simpson's murder case in 1995, and you were the only juror clamoring for a guilty verdict. Would you have had the onions to stand up against 11 people who were ready to set the Juice loose?

This is the dilemma, in reverse, of Twelve Angry Men's Juror Eight. Unlike the Broadway Series, this Playhouse Square Center show is not a musical and has zero eye candy — no dazzling sets, props, or lighting effects. What it does have is a solid, tightly orchestrated ensemble that brings a 50-year-old script to vibrant, passionate life.

The production precisely mirrors the 1957 movie, both in scripting and tone. And while the cast here does not have the celebrity horsepower of that iconic flick — it starred Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, and other notables — this company performs with admirable precision.

The one recognizable face is Richard Thomas, who was John-Boy on TV's The Waltons three decades ago. Thomas plays Juror Eight — a man who doesn't go with the flow when the other jurors express their offhand assumption that their defendant is guilty.

On trial is a 16-year-old boy, whose name and ethnicity we never learn. He is accused of killing his father by stabbing him in the chest, an event apparently witnessed by a woman in a nearby apartment building. The boy faces a death sentence.

It doesn't take long for jurors to reveal their prejudices. Juror Ten vaguely observes that "They're born liars" and "You know how people like that are." This leaves the audience free to picture a boy of any racial or ethnic minority, and serves as a subtle gauge of each audience member's own prejudicial inclinations.

The script, by Reginald Rose, fights oversimplification at every turn, especially since each character is so starkly portrayed as a certain "type." Analytical Juror Four is a stockbroker; he feels strongly that the evidence indicates guilt and is joined by hotheaded Juror Ten. But the most volatile man is Juror Three, the owner of a message service and a frustrated dad with an almost-grown son whose rebelliousness is causing the father torment.

These three jurors, along with the eight others who also want to vote guilty, face off against Juror Eight, who begins by asking to review the facts of the case. This is considered a waste of time by most, but Eight doggedly pushes on until the wall of assumption begins to crumble.

Director Scott Ellis manages his cast of 13 (there's also a guard) with skill, maneuvering the fellows around the long conference table. By shaping the beats like a sculptor, and allowing moments of rage to arise and subside in their own good time, Ellis manages to make this talky, static play throb with energy.

Thomas handles Juror Eight with the right amount of logic and compassion, without becoming a prissy pain. Julian Gamble takes on the showier Juror Three with relish, throwing out insulting, sarcastic put-downs as he tries to cow the jurors who slowly go over to the "not guilty" side.

Their relationship in the claustrophobic room defines the growing tension. For instance, Juror Three recounts the testimony of a person in the apartment building who overheard the defendant scream, "I want to kill you," professing that this is evidence of his murderous intent. But later, a frustrated Three shouts, "I'll kill you!" at Eight, who smoothly replies, "Yes, but you didn't mean that, did you?"

The other players contribute mightily to this stellar production. Kevin Dobson is the blatantly bigoted Juror Ten, but he never overplays that hand. Tony Ward, as flip-flopping Juror Twelve, an advertising executive, offers some comic relief as he blows with the wind and changes his vote based on who scowled at him most recently. And Juror Eleven, an immigrant with a love of this country's judicial system, is given a tender yet penetrating portrayal by David Lively.

But it's the quiet and obsequious old man, Juror Nine (Alan Mandell), who finally tips the case upside down and allows all of us to leave the theater ruminating on the thin thread upon which our justice system hangs.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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