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Grand Jury

This old TV drama still moves us

A long time ago in a television galaxy far, far away -- the 1950s -- there thrived a form of popular entertainment that brought original drama into the homes of average Americans, many of whom had never stepped into a Broadway theater in their lives. Broadcast live from studios in New York, one-hour "anthology dramas" probed into contemporary events with a maturity and insight that's usually the province of the big screen's "message" movies. Amazingly, except on Saturday nights, it was possible to watch a cornucopia of exciting new plays every evening -- free Broadway right in your own living room, courtesy of Goodyear, Pepsi, Kraft and other sponsors.

Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose's juicy jury room drama, is the epitome of this type of TV show: earnest in a civics-lesson kind of way, cleverly constructed with alternating swells of calm and storm, taut with dramatic plot twists and character revelations, and actor-friendly with big set pieces so everyone shines. Written in 1954 for CBS's prestigious Studio One, the original one-hour teleplay won Rose an Emmy award; the 1957 film version, adapted by Rose, featured Henry Fonda as morally upright Juror #8 (every character is known only by his or her seating arrangement in the jury box). In 2004, this ultimate behind-the-scenes courtroom drama finally reached Broadway in an esteemed production at Roundabout Theatre Company, vigorously directed by Scott Ellis. Now on tour, this rich ensemble piece stars TV favorites Richard Thomas (The Waltons) as conscientious, questioning #8 and George Wendt (Cheers) as the harried foreman, Juror #1.

On the hottest day in July, 12 men deliberate a first-degree murder case after receiving their instructions from the offstage judge. (The shabby, rundown room is rendered in photorealism by Allen Moyer. Even the windows are grimy -- so New York.) A 16-year-old from the slums is on trial for killing his father. A guilty verdict from the 12 carries a mandatory death sentence, but most of the jurors see their deliberations as perfunctory; they think it is obviously an open-and-shut case. Wisecracking Juror #7 (Mark Morettini) has baseball tickets for a night game and wants to wrap this up as soon as possible; loudmouth #10 (Julian Gamble) grumbles offhandedly about "them" and "those types," having already made up his mind about the boy's guilt; working-class #6 (Charles Borland) seems content to follow the advice of others; intellectual #4 (Jeffrey Hayenga) is convinced that the facts speak for themselves; gruff #3 (Randle Mell) has deep-seated problems with his son and is predisposed to find the boy guilty. But as soon as the first vote is tallied, a lone voice of dissent comes from #8. The room just got hotter.

Juror #8 doesn't know if the boy's guilty or not; he has reasonable doubts, and those impel him to ask questions and talk it out with the others. What about that witness with the limp? Could he possibly get down the hall quickly enough to see anyone run by? Do you really stab someone overhand with a switchblade, as the woman claimed she saw through the open window, with the elevated subway passing at the same time? Juror #5 (Jim Saltouros), raised in the slums, definitively answers that question with firsthand knowledge. In spite of their intractable prejudices and personal motives, prodded by #8, the jurors spar and jab as they methodically question the testimony and each other. Even frail old gentleman #9 (Alan Mandell) has powers of observation far more precise and wily than those of the younger men. With his rumpled pants pulled up to his shoulders, Mandell gets the better of the room's bullies and relishes holding the audience right in the palm of his hand.

Wendt makes a more than capable Juror #1, an ordinary man burdened under the immense responsibility of doing the right thing and keeping all the volatile emotions from derailing the mission. Thomas is a natural for upstanding Juror #8, who's willing to say what's on his mind in the name of justice and fair play. He doesn't play the character as the starring role -- the juror's (and star's) natural halo is put in his pocket for the sake of the ensemble. Refreshingly, he exudes moral rightness without being smug.

Twelve Angry Men is a quintessential American play, content to explore our unique jurisprudence system through a cross-section of guys whose faults are laid out for all to see. It's the willingness to admit foibles that results in the morally right decision. Yes, the play is old-fashioned and its dramaturgy creaks, but with 12 good actors digging beneath the cardboard of their characters, this old TV drama still moves us with its message of compassion, understanding and fairness. That's not particular to America, of course, that's just grand old theater -- and TV as it once was.

 
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