Pique Performance

The verdict on Twelve Angry Jurors

Feb 9, 2005 at 4:00 am
A half-century ago, back in what is now known as The Golden Age of Television but which actually was more brassy than golden, millions of Americans used to watch live drama in the comfort of their living rooms. The best of these dramas -- Marty, Days of Wine and Roses, The Hustler, The Rainmaker -- were rewarded with big-screen film adaptations.

So it was that Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, which premiered as a one-hour, one-set melodrama on "Studio One" in 1954, three years later was released as a 95-minute feature film sporting a firecracker cast of male actors.

But the appeal of this jury-room drama was not done yet. In 1960 Rose's story was adapted yet again, this time for the stage by Sherman L. Sergel. Through the years Sergel has refashioned this astonishingly pliable script into Twelve Angry Women, Twelve Angry People and the homogenous Twelve Angry Jurors. There's probably not a community theater or college in the land that hasn't produced the play in one form or another. As testimony to its resiliency, after more than four decades of hinterland productions, the original Twelve Angry Men is enjoying its very first Broadway production. Critics have warned that the material seems a little creaky, but viewers can't seem to get enough of the solid theatrics and cachet casting; the limited run has been extended into April.

The story (for those few who don't already know it) plays out in a New York City jury room. A youth has been charged with the murder of his father. As the deliberative process begins, eleven jurors are eager to vote guilty and return to their daily routine. But one lone holdout (Henry Fonda on film; Robert Cummings in the original TV show) persists in forcing his peers to give the accused a fair hearing.

But here's a twist: In the current Alpha Players of Florissant production, that lone juror is confronting her peers rather than his. The lead role has been cast not only with a woman, but with an African-American woman. But what initially seems like a risky proposition turns out to be no risk at all, because Rosa Hill is the most persuasive performer onstage. She is steady, calm, deliberative and just cautious enough to be believable.

In addition to recasting the principal role with a woman, the most wealthy and assured of the twelve jurors is also portrayed by an African American. Reginald Pierre is smooth and polished in the role that patrician E.G. Marshall played on film. The notion of seeing a black man enact the most superior character onstage provides the script with a fresh spin, but that's Alpha Players' doing. Many of the changes Sergel imposed on Twelve Angry Men are merely cosmetic. In the original, for instance, a male juror is in a hurry to wrap up the voting because he has tickets to the baseball game that night; here a female has tickets to a Broadway production of Guys and Dolls. Such alterations are hardly worth the bother.

It should come as no surprise that in a community-theater production with twelve key roles, the scales of casting are going to be widely tilted. In addition to Hill and Pierre, Tom Yager is effective as the eldest juror; so too is John Higgins as the lone refugee who recognizes injustice, simply because he has been subjected to so much injustice himself. As for some of the others, we can only assume that director Lori Renna does not know -- or was unable to persuade her performers -- that there is a profound distinction between acting and yelling. Hence, an evening that should build to heightened melodrama instead descends into shrillness. Renna also designed the effective set, which has been angled so that sight lines are never a problem in the comfortably tiered Florissant Civic Center Theatre.

On screen, the original Twelve Angry Men is a classic; on stage, Twelve Angry Jurors is more in the nature of a phenomenon. It's fun to see it out of sheer curiosity. But if it's emotional involvement you seek, get thee to a video store.