Some critics might say that Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” has had an incredibly long life, but it is beginning to show its age. And while that statement may be true about this 1950 courtroom drama that can best be described as “herding cats with life and death at stake” in a New York court, the fact remains is that this story about a jury that can’t decide on a verdict is as inspiring as it is a depressing piece of entertainment. At its core, it reveals that attitudes surrounding racism more than half a century ago are still relevant today.
The play first aired on American TV in 1954, was filmed by Sidney Lumet in 1957, and in 1964 it began its theatrical career. This all-male, all-white jury is the perfect storm waiting to happen. Then, and now. That is not simply because it presents us with an all-male, all-white jury, but the problem lies with a man we learn to dislike, detest, and ultimately pity. Juror 3. A character who is a lone wolf among a group of twelve jurors, and who refuses to automatically render a verdict of guilty on a 16-year-old black boy accused of brutally stabbing his father to death.
Directed by J. Barry Lewis, the drama starts as a guard leads twelve well-dressed jurors into a courtroom. It’s a hot summer night and the fan in the bleak room is broken. Enough coal to light a fire. And as a round of votes is taken, resulting in a deadlock—11 guilty, 1 non-guilty—tempers soar and the heat in the room rises.
Gradually, Juror 8 begins to unravel the overwhelming evidence against the boy calmly. There can be difficulties in coming to a unanimous decision regarding the 16-year-old murder suspect, but he begins to chip away at the dogmatic certainty of his peers with reasonable doubt, except for one.
Juror 3, played by no other than William Hayes, producing artistic director of Palm Beach Dramaworks, plays the rough character who ultimately steals the show. A veteran actor who took to the backstage [pun intended] when PBD began to take off in our community more than 20 years ago as a regional theater “to think about,” this is a play that has not left his subconscious since its inception.
“When we moved into the new theater here in 2010, I felt that Twelve Angry Men was a perfect play for our space,” said Hayes, as he described how they recreated the jury room, which fit perfectly with the shape of the PBD stage. “It’s such a heated play and the audience will feel like they’re right in that jury room with us.”
Now was the time to do this play, Hayes observed. The story takes place in the Eisenhower era, which was a white male-dominated period in this country, and in the rest of the world. Life was great for a white male. It was rare for a woman or other minorities to serve on a jury, or hardly at all.
Back then, there was this American Dream, this image of the 50s, where men were the breadwinners and women had to stay home in the kitchen. Racism, bigotry, and antisemitism were also prevalent in our society and in the world at large. This was reflected on television in shows like Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons, All in the Family, and Happy Days. Even when there was a single parent like in the “Andy Griffith Show” or “My Three Sons,” it was always the single dad that ran the show. Women weren’t viewed as having the same strength or as intellectuals able to run a household.
Twelve Angry Men depicts this flawed period well. How it was, and how it hasn’t changed in many ways. With the racial tension rising in the United States, Hayes felt this play needed to be told, again. He reunited a group of actors who had been on the PBD stage at some point in their career: Rob Donohoe [Juror 10], Jim Ballard [Juror 5], Cliff Goulet, [Guard], Tim Altmeyer [Juror 1], Michael McKeever [Juror 2], Gary Cadwallader [Juror 4], Matthew W. Korinko, [Juror 6], John Leonard Thompson [Juror 7], Tom Wahl [Juror 8], Dennis Creaghan [Juror 9], David Kwiat [Juror 11], and Bruce Linser [Juror 12].
Like every good play, the audience gets to examine how far we have come since 1954 when the original script aired on national television. And because PBD has a bright audience, they’re able to see that Hayes is trying to make a point: 68 years later, America still is a very male-dominated society.
It worked in 1964 and still works in 2022. But I suspect, we’ve learned enough about the strengths and fragility of our judicial system to know that not all cases have a fair ending. Not every jury has a juror 8 who is uncertain of a man’s guilt and speaks up in his defense.
Finally, I hope this play’s audience holds a mirror up to society and asks, “How did we get here, and why?”
Now playing until December 24, 2022, the show runs approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes. To buy your tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.com or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach.
Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men