Twelve Angry Men: A Strong Ensemble Showing at UpStage Theatre

Sometimes it's a very good thing to be angry.
Sometimes it's a very good thing to be angry.
Photo courtesy UpStage Theatre

The setup:

A much loved and admired jury-room drama, Twelve Angry Men, is brought to exciting life at UpStage Theatre as skilled actors find its suspense, its humor and its humanity. The execution:

Reginald Rose's drama Twelve Angry Men won three television Emmys in 1954, and Sidney Lumet's use of the material in the 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda (and a galaxy of famous actors) created a cinematic icon. Sherman L. Sergel adapted the Reginald Rose teleplay for the stage in 1955, and its popularity and appeal have continued for well over a half century.

Variations exist in which the jurors are all female or half male and half female, and UpStage Theatre had the vigor and stamina to mount these as well. Opening weekend is the traditional male cast, with all-female jurors in Week Two (Twelve Angry Women), and with six men and six women in Week Three (Twelve Angry Jurors.)

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The set is the jury room, wooden-paneled and with one window, chairs and a long conference table for deliberations. The director, Ann Richie, is co-Artistic Director of UpStage Theatre, and her deft touch keeps characters in motion so we see varying tableaux and not the backs of jurors' heads. Even more important, she has found the rhythm of pauses and outbursts, silences and shouts, that holds our interest and builds suspense. The situation is serious -- a young man on trial for killing his father -- but the script still provides ironic twists and is laced with humor.

Initially, the vote to convict is almost unanimous, 11 to 1, but the holdout is Juror #8, portrayed here by Arnold Richie, and by Henry Fonda in the film. Richie is excellent, bringing the calm demeanor appropriate for a man seeking to be reasonable, but also conveying the tenacity and eloquence that make him formidable. The most ardent spokesperson for a guilty verdict is Juror #3, played by Jack Dunlop, who provides a vivid, gripping characterization. Jay Menchaca plays Juror #4, also strongly for a guilty verdict but with a more cerebral than visceral approach. These have the largest roles, but Reginald Rose had the wisdom to give each of the jurors a moment of prominence, and each rises to the occasion.

The entire production has the strength of pure professionalism, and director Richie has found the heart in the drama as well. With 12 very different personalities clashing, she nonetheless has achieved a level of ensemble acting that puts us into the jury room with them, yearning to join the debate. It is a remarkable directorial accomplishment, and suggests that the innovative weeks following will be similarly excellent.

The verdict:

UpStage Theatre has mounted a production that clicks on all cylinders, on acting, direction, pace and humor, and provides an exciting evening of suspense and drama as emotions rise, secrets are revealed and tempestuous outbursts draw us into the life-and-death struggle developing onstage.

Twelve Angry Men plays now through June 2, with Twelve Angry Women playing May 25 and 26 and Twelve Angry Jurors playing June 1 and 2, at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. For ticketing or information, please call 713-838-7191 or contact the theater's Web site.

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