To the casual observer, it may look typical: a group of men sitting in a room around a table discussing the trial they are on the jury for. But once the story of “Twelve Angry Men” gets rolling, there is much more to be seen and heard.
“It’s a beautiful cross-section of America,” Lisa Dougherty, director of the Pennsylvania Theatre of Performing Arts production, said of the characters that assemble on stage.
“Twelve Angry Men,” written by Reginald Rose, tells the story of a dozen men who are jurors to a murder trial in which a young boy is accused of killing his father.
“It doesn’t focus so much on the guilt or innocence of the boy,” Dougherty said. “It’s all about the personal experiences, the personal biases of the jurors, and how their baggage affects the way they perceive this boy.
“The playwright alludes to the fact that the young man is a minority, so you see the prejudices come forth,” she continued. “There’s also evidence of class war; there are some affluent jurors and some poor ones. One has a young son who’s 20 and is estranged, and because of that, the juror’s prejudice carries over to how he perceives this boy.
“It’s funny, because one of the lessons of the story is not to stereotype people, but each of the jurors is a stereotype.”
The jurors’ names are never disclosed; they are known solely by their numbers. Juror Number 8 is the lead character, and Dougherty said he’s been named one of the 50 greatest heroes of film by the American Film Institute.
“He’s an architect, a white collar worker,” she said. “As they enter the jury room, he suggests they take a preliminary vote to see where everyone stands, and it comes back 11 to 1, guilty. He’s the only one who votes not guilty, not because he thinks the boy is innocent, but because he thinks it deserves a discussion, whereas everyone else assumes it’s an open and shut case. He forces everyone to discuss the evidence presented – is there reasonable doubt? After all, they can send a young man to die.”
The character was played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film version, one of the reasons Dougherty said people are so familiar with the title.
“I haven’t changed really anything as far as the stage show goes,” Dougherty said of the comparison to the movie, which she said she and many of the actors in the show have seen. “It’s a classic, so I wouldn’t stray too far from it; I’m keeping the same time frame, same occupations of the jurors.”
There is a challenge that comes along with a single-setting show.
“12 men just sitting around a table would make people fall asleep,” Dougherty said with a laugh. “There’s a water cooler, a window, many little things to work with. If people were sitting there like they normally would, you’ll have someone who gets up to stretch their legs, who goes to the window for fresh air.”
The familiarity of it all is what Dougherty said makes the play so attention-grabbing for the audience.
“No matter what the era is, you will see a reflection of current opinions,” she said. “There’s always a racist in the group, a young man who thinks he’s not good enough because he grew up in a poverty-stricken area. You could see yourself up there, see a neighbor, see someone you know.”
And there is also hope for the system of law in which these people are operating, which many have called flawed time and again.
“There’s the hope that justice may prevail,” Dougherty said. “You don’t know whether the young man is truly innocent or guilty, but at least you know they really discussed it and thought it through. It reinforces belief in the system.”