Seeing the play Twelve Angry Men, you get exactly that: twelve angry men. Twelve jurors locked in a room on a scorching summer day, wiping sweat from their necks and foreheads, fanning themselves with their hats, gulping down water -- it's the hottest day of the year onstage, and sitting there in the audience you can't help but start to tug at your collar a little bit yourself, despite the single digit temperatures of our fair city and the constant snow outside. The men yell and they bicker, they shout and accuse, they're constantly at each others' throats. A two-act play with the same twelve nameless characters in the same room the entire time. But how to make it interesting? Well, the Raven Theatre Company sure knows how.
Located at 6157 N Clark St, the Raven Theatre is an intimate venue with, for this particular show, seating on three sides, where the audience is either eye-level with or slightly looking down at the stage. Furnished with only a long table and twelve single chairs, the set is that of a 1950's, un-air-conditioned jury room. But it's not the set, or the lights, or the rare occurences of sound effects and music that give life to the play, but the actors themselves. Yes, certainly every play is brought to life by its actors, but in Twelve Angry Men interesting acting is crucial, seeing as it is the singular thing that develops, complicates, and eventually resolves the story; this play could be performed without a set at all, could be performed with just twelve men, and it could be just as dramatic and enthralling.
"...However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous. I don't envy your job, gentlemen. You're faced with a grave responsibility." And so begins the tortured struggle amongst twelve ordinary men who must decide whether a 16-year-old boy is guilty of murdering his father with a switchblade. These words are spoken by the judge of the case, whom we never see; nor do we see the teenaged defendent, the supposed murderer, because it is not important that we do. What is important is that we see (and inadvertantly become one of) a jury of individuals from different backgrounds, with different prejudices and different convictions, decide the fate of a young man -- who will mandatorily be sent to the electric chair in the case of a "guilty" verdict.
At the start, all the men are convinced the boy is guilty; the kid is from the slums, he's been arrested for mugging and knife-fighting before, it's an open-and-shut case, or so it seems. They take a vote: 11 guilty, 1 not guilty. Many of the men lash out at Juror #8, who believes that there may be reasonable doubt that the boy did not commit the murder. It's hot, they've spent three long days in court, one has tickets to a baseball game -- it's obvious he's guilty, so why not just call it a day? the other jurors think. Although opposed by everybody at first, Juror #8 stands firm and states that he cannot so easily send a boy off to the electric chair without talking about it first. After bringing up details that were not addressed during the trial (and questioning or re-evaluating details that were), the votes slowly turn over... 10 guilty, 2 not guilty...7 guilty, 5 not guilty...6 and 6...until finally only one stubborn juror remains convinced of the young man's guilt. The story, although simple in structure, is highly complex; the details of the trial are hashed and re-hashed from every possible angle, the drama is so palpable at certain points of argument or revelation that you can taste it, there are well-chosen moments of humor amidst the drama, and each juror's personality manages to shine through during the discussions and arguments that take place among them.
Raven presents a highly varied cast, with men of all ages, black, white, Asian-American, and Latino. C. L. Brown is a gentle and pensive Juror #8, while Dan Loftus plays a jaded and hateful Juror #3. Bryson Engelen is the intellectual Juror #4 and Reginald Vaughn is the volatile and highly prejudiced Juror #10. And some of the actors are stepping onto the professional stage for the first time, but I wouldn't have known had I not read it in the program. Despite a few opening night fumbles of tripping over words in certain lines, the actors performed superbly, especially considering the circular format the script takes that allows much room for accidentally jumping ahead lines, as the same topics are addressed multiple times throughout the show. Furthermore, a factor often taken for granted in theatre is blocking; with direction from Aaron Todd Douglas, the play stays visually interesting despite the limited setting and time frame. The actors are constantly moving, whether it's standing up, pacing, fidgeting, changing positions, moving to a different seat, et cetera...the audience will not even realize that they're not bored watching twelve men talk for nearly two hours.
The play itself is a timeless piece that brings up issues that are relevant today and have been relevant since the play was written in 1955. After witnessing such a compelling, revealing, and oftentimes frustrating, story, one cannot help but question whether or not things are as black-and-white as they seem. "But it's possible..."