Twelve Angry Men was first produced in the mid-1950s as a play for television, then reworked for the stage and, of course, the famed movie with an all-star cast led by Henry Fonda. Having sat through the trial of an inner-city young man accused of murder, the all-male jury must come up with a unanimous decision of guilty or not guilty. On first vote, it’s 11-1 in favor of guilty. The lone holdout — a meticulous middle-aged man sticking to his convictions among 11 of his peers who want to convict and go home — has enough questions about the seemingly obvious case that reasonable doubt, racism and the fragility of justice permeate the play — sometimes slowly and sometimes with an explosion of passion.
2nd Star Productions is known for staging big musicals at the 150-seat Bowie Playhouse, with the occasional straight play tossed in. For Twelve Angry Men, 2nd Star has teamed up to present the drama in the Odenton space used by a new arts group, West Arundel Creative Arts, to provide visual and performing arts classes to local children.
The large, open first floor of an office building is upon entry a little off-putting, what with the fluorescent lights and low ceilings that are the antithesis of most real theater spaces. The stage space is simply a long table for 12 in the middle of the floor, with one wall separating backstage from stage and providing for entrances and exits. With the actors on the same floor as the audience — who surround them on three sides — and with the entire room lit, audience members often see as much of each other as of the cast.
But director Jane Wingard and a very capable cast soon turn our attention from each other to center stage, where sincere and very carefully crafted characters make us feel the tension of holding the fate of a life in one’s hands.
2nd Star sets the play in the present day. The addition of several African-American cast members to the deliberating dozen creates some interesting counterpoint to the script, which, while written in a far different era, now, especially in the context of recent events, reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The protagonist in this case is juror No. 8, played by Gene Valendo, a 2nd Star veteran who brings a polite yet passionate determination that despite the overwhelming odds, the road to reasonable doubt must be followed through to its conclusion. Valendo does a fine job here, balancing his character’s solid belief that a youngster shouldn’t be put to death unless the case against him is irreproachable, with the points made by others who insist guilt has been proved.
Juror No. 1, the foreman, is deftly played by Brad Eaton, whose interest in wrapping up a guilty verdict quickly is soon surpassed by his responsibility to keep things under control. The de facto foreman, in fact, ends up being juror No. 4, played by Ben Harris with an initially cool detachment and insistence that everyone be heard. His detachment simmers until, later in the play, it erupts into an angry nearly physical confrontation with juror No. 10, a racist whose rant about how they are not good for anything and are guilty by skin color takes the breath away from the entire room — including audience. As embodied by Tom Hartzell, this juror’s racism of the 1950s reminds us that, 60 years later, we still have a long way to go.
As juror No. 3, Ken Kienas is effective as the angry man whose frustration votes changed to not guilty spills over into near violence. That effectiveness could be even more real with a bit more modulation in his voice, which at first is always set to 10 on the volume knob. Jerry Khatcheressian, another local community theater veteran, gives us the sincerity of one who has come to this country from far worse conditions than he meets in the U.S.A. as juror No. 11. The rest of the jurors — Richard Blank, Larry Griffin, Daley Gunter, Nick Thompson, Anders Tighe and Andre Foster — all prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
A few misplaced ad-libs and a touch of slowness in cue pickup during the first act gave way in the second act to the all-in dive into these characters.
This is a true ensemble effort that takes playgoers out of the fluorescence and drop ceilings of an Odenton business space into a dirty, cramped big-city jury room whose air is heavy with the weight of determining justice.
Judge: Kim Ethridge. Assistant director: Steve Andrews. Lighting and sound technician: Matt Andrews. Stage manager (and guard): Joanne Wilson. Two hours with intermission.
ThFSa 8pm; Su 3pm: West Arundel Creative Arts, Odenton. $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.