Saturday, February 26, 2011

Twelve Angry Men (and one sleepy woman!) at the Asolo Rep Theater

Last week my friend Maggie came down from New Jersey for a visit and to play bridge with me in a regional tournament. Although the Sarasota-Manatee Convention Center is a fine facility, spending all of her visit playing bridge there would have been like going to San Francisco on a business trip and sitting in a conference room the whole time.  (Hmm, I seem to recall that actually happening once!)   Anyway, I wanted to show off some of the things that Southwest Florida has to offer so we decided to mix it up a bit and go see Twelve Angry Men at the Asolo Rep in Sarasota.

Most everyone has seen the 1957 movie Twelve Angry Men with its all-star cast debating the fate of a boy accused of killing his father.  The movie starts with the jury taking a poll to find out where they stand on the verdict.  Henry Fonda plays Juror No. 8, the sole juror with questions as to whether the prosecution has proven the boy's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  Over the course of the next hour and a half, he slowly persuades the rest of the jurors (with Lee J. Cobb playing Juror No 3, the angriest of the men) that the evidence has some holes and does not warrant a guilty verdict and a death sentence for the defendant.  

Cut to the Asolo Rep's production.  The Asolo had sent an e-mail blast with a glowing review of the play from the Wall Street Journal so my expectations were high.  We settled into our seats and took a look at the program, which was packed with information.  It included an excerpt from the Handbook distributed by the Fully Informed Jury Association that reads:

"It is your responsibility to insist that your vote of not guilty be respected by all other members of the jury.  For you are not there as a fool, merely to agree with the majority, but as a qualified judge in your right to see that justice is done.  Regardless of the pressures or abuse that may be applied to you by any or all members of the jury with whom you may in good conscience disagree, you can await the reading of the verdict in the knowledge you have voted for your conscience and convictions, not those of someone else."

In addition to the jury instruction, the program included a definition of a hung jury and information about prior productions of the play and movie.  (Jack Lemmon and Richard "John Boy" Thomas have also had the distinction of playing Juror No. 8.)   We also had the chance to read an interview with  director Frank Galati (who won two Tony Awards in 1990 for his adaptation and direction of Grapes of Wrath).  Galati was coming off a recent production of Twelve Angry Men at Malz Jupiter Theater last year so he brought recent experience with the play to the Asolo.  We learned that his goal was to remain as faithful as possible to the text of the play and that half of the cast had come over from the production in Jupiter.  We were primed for the next 90 minutes to be an intense theatrical experience. 

After the build up, I experienced what was perhaps the inevitable let down of high expectations.  Both Maggie and I felt that the production was good (although neither of us liked the direction for each actor to stand when he spoke) and that the acting was professional.  Galati directed the play to get more laughs from the audience than I felt the material warranted. (Given the demographics of the audience, it was funny, though, when one juror accused the others of being a bunch of old women.)  I personally had to laugh when, after an hour of deliberation, they wanted to go back to the judge to tell him that they were a hung jury and could they please go home (or, in the case of one juror, to the ball game.)  Overall, though, I came away from the afternoon wondering why the Asolo chose Twelve Angry Men as part of its repertoire.

The world has obviously changed a lot since 1957 and the play seemed a bit innocent or naive to me.  Juror No. 8 is Perry Mason-esque as he punches holes in evidence that the public defender failed to attack during the trial.  What struck me most about the play, though, was how the personalities and prejudices of the jurors impacted the discussions.  If I had been part of the jury, I would have reacted violently against Jurors No 3 and 7 with their vitriolic remarks and small-mindedness and it would have been difficult to align myself with them regardless of what I thought.  Of course, Juror No. 8 is the voice of reason and never gets flustered when a concern that he's raised is not embraced by the group.  The play builds to a crescendo in the last few minutes when, one by one, the jurors fall into place with a not guilty verdict.  In current times, though, having seen hundreds of episodes of Law and Order and read too many novels involving trials and jury deliberations, the play just did not have the dramatic impact it would have had in the 1957 version of the movie.

I have to disclose--and this is where the "sleepy woman" bit comes in--that I had been awake since 4:30 so I didn't come to the production at my perkiest.  I struggled to stay awake at the beginning of the show so perhaps I missed a crucial moment that would have made my experience a bit different.  Overall, though, I give the production a solid "B" and look forward to seeing what the Asolo has to offer in the future.

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