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‘12 Angry Men’ Still Seems Relevant in These Angry Times

In a way, it isn’t hard to see why Twelve Angry Men, the 1957 film that earned Sidney Lumet his first Oscar nomination for best director, bombed at the box office. Twelve ordinary guys stuck in a room modeling the deliberative process isn’t exactly, I don’t know, The Dirty Dozen, right?

In a way, that comparison is instructive. War, or at least World War II, is easy from a moral standpoint. Problems are solved at the end of a gun. Deliberation — politics, let’s call it — is hard. People have prejudices, preconceived notions, deeply held beliefs that become bound to their identities. Even in a group of reasonable people it can be hard to get things done. I could cite an example from current events, but that’s a bit too easy.

So Twelve Angry Men has arrived in production at Northern Stage in White River Junction at an interesting moment. It is the simplest of dramas: A group of jurors, 12 men, is locked in a room to decide the fate of an 18-year-old man charged with stabbing his father to death. A guilty verdict means death, the jurors, and the audience, are told at the start.

It’s hot, the men loosen their ties and fan themselves with legal pads. The initial vote is 11 to 1 to convict, a vote that starts a riveting evening of theater.

Casting is more than half the job and the choices made by Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s new artistic director, and Malcolm Morrison, who directed the production, seem spot on. Nowhere is that more true than in the casting of Jamie Horton as the lone holdout in the jury’s first vote. Horton comes across as an ordinary man, lean, with swept-back hair that reveals a tall forehead. As Juror No. 8 he wears an implacable Midwestern rectitude. He has doubts about the evidence he’s seen, and isn’t afraid to voice them among his more certain fellow jurors.

“I don’t know whether I believe it or not,” he says. “It’s just that we’re talking about somebody’s life here.”

Some of the other jurors are less interested in discharging their duty than in rendering a swift guilty verdict and heading home after a three-day trial. But Juror No. 8 isn’t going to let that happen. “I think the testimony that could put a person in the electric chair should be that accurate,” he says.

For the most part, this production plays Reginald Rose’s 1954 drama straight. Of course back then, all the jurors were white men. The lone quirk is the casting of Keith Hamilton Cobb, who is black, as the bigoted Juror No. 10. “I’ve lived among ’em all my life,” he says, referring to the accused and other poor, presumably black kids from what were then called slums. Cobb is a massive presence on the stage. When he shouts “There is not one of them, not one, who is any good,” his speech is self-lacerating, the words of a troubled soul.

But it also means that at the end of his speech we see him shushed by a well-to-do white juror who says “Sit down and don’t open your mouth again,” an order he more or less follows, speaking only when spoken to. It’s an awkward moment that takes the play in a direction I’m not sure it was meant to follow.

First performed live on television, then as a play and a film, Twelve Angry Men is now an American chestnut. To switch metaphors, it’s a lens through which to view our own time. The timelessness of the play extends to the professions of the jurors: architect, housepainter, garage operator, salesman, high school football coach, and so on. A cross-section of class in America.

When one of the most narrow-minded jurors, played by Christian Kohn with profane, even pathological anger, finds himself backed into a corner, he turns to a line we all know well and know to be false. “You lousy bunch of bleeding hearts. You’re not going to intimidate me. I’m entitled to my opinion.”

You sure are, pal. But it doesn’t make you right.

Performances of Twelve Angry Men continue through Oct. 20.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com, or at 603-727-3219.