Before coming onstage each night, the dozen actors in Keegan Theatre’s production of Twelve Angry Men douse themselves with water. Literally: They pour bottles on their heads. When they trudge up the stairs into the theater, most wearing three-piece suits, mopping their brows and moaning about the hottest day of the year, you know you’re in for a long, steamy night of un-air-conditioned deliberation.
That kind of willing-to-get-wet dedication, coupled with an attention to detail, says a lot about Keegan’s worthwhile production of Reginald Rose’s classic play, adapted from his 1954 television script. These non-Equity actors can’t be making much money spending the month of March working for a local theater company, but it’s clear they want to be in the jury room, even though the characters they’re playing rather would be elsewhere. Like the Yankees game.
In the teleplay, stage adaptation, and subsequent Sidney Lumet film, a dozen men debate whether a teenage boy with a rap sheet is guilty of murdering his father at knifepoint. The defendant’s race is never specified, but he’s “one of these people,” so pick your minority. Likewise, we never get names from the jurors, just numbers. To play the skeptical Juror Eight sincerely, and with restrained sanctimony, Keegan employs a thoughtful Colin Smith. We don’t know much about the character, but his mind didn’t rest when the prosecution did, and he gets the post-courtroom drama going by casting the lone “not guilty” vote in an initial straw poll.
From here on out, the play’s machinations are obvious. As Juror Eight urges the other 11 to reconsider, the circumstantial evidence grows more suspect by the minute. Dramatic tension builds not as each witness is disproven, but as nine other jurors come around one by one, each for distinct reasons.
But wait. Nine skeptical jurors, plus one ringleader, only equals 10 angry men. Good point. That’s because this particular production would be better titled Two Very Angry Men and Ten Who Are Really Pissed Off but Honestly Much More Subtle About Things. That last pair of blowhards? The actors playing them are so intent on conveying nothing but rage, they push an otherwise credible production into hyperbole.
To be fair, I doubt many players walk into a Twelve Angry Men audition and say, “Ooh, ooh, pick me! I wanna play the racist asshole!” Mark A. Rhea, Keegan’s artistic director, takes on the role of Juror Ten himself. But as the garage owner who is convinced the boy is guilty, his perpetual squinting and sputtering quickly gets tiresome. Likewise Juror Three (David Jourdan), a bitter blue-collar guy estranged from his own son, seems to have only one emotional gear, and that is irrational fury. His character has some lines tinged with humor, but they’re lost. When the blustering holdouts finally capitulate, it’s a relief only because they’ve shut up, not because they’ve seen the light.
This play doesn’t have to end that way. The first and last time I saw Twelve Angry Men was in 2006, when New York’s Roundabout Theatre sent Richard Thomas (Juror Eight) and George Wendt (Juror Three) around the country. I happened to catch a Wednesday matinee at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, and trust me, you haven’t seen Twelve Angry Men until you’ve seen it with several hundred Baltimore city school kids. Every time a juror changed his vote to “not guilty,” a cheer went up from the crowd like a touchdown had just been scored for civil rights. I’m not saying Keegan needs to put on the judicial equivalent of the Super Bowl, but even a small crowd of mostly middle-aged Washingtonians should leave Twelve Angry Men buoyed by a sense of redemption. What we get here is more like relief from the repressive heat.