A judge´s voiceover sets the stakes from the beginning; a teenage defendant faces certain execution if found guilty for murdering his father. With the exception of one juror, the rest of the jury returns with guilty votes with barely a discussion. The arguments that follow play out like a classic mystery that dramatically shift the jurors’ — and the audience´s — understanding of truth and justice from black and white to textured shades of gray.
Reginald Rose´s script is simultaneously a joy and a nightmare to stage; 12 men essentially sit around a giant table and talk for two hours. The setting of a single room cleverly omits typical pacing pitfalls like entrances, exits and set changes, but conversely demands every actor to deliver compelling performances throughout. Rose wrote each character with a rich distinction that makes all their voices essential to the final outcome.
Jeff Magnuson plays Juror #8, the sole dissenter in the room. As a moral compass this character is arguably the most challenging role to play. Like a talking Bill of Rights, Juror #8´s dialogue reveals little about who he is beyond being unbiased. The strength of the show relies in a large part on the actor’s ability to make this character relatable, which Magnuson achieves.
As #8´s direct opposition, Juror #3 (Michael Hays) is the villain audiences loves to hate. Hays prowls the stage like a sentinel hound ready to pounce on any dissenting opinion. He uses his intimidating stature to full effect, staring metaphorical daggers across the room and, at one point, wielding a real one with palpable menace. Todd Heywood plays Hays´ unofficial second-in-command, Juror #4. As the more eloquent spokesman for the arguments of guilt, Heywood displays a focused passion that grounds his character´s arguments and keeps the audience from jumping prematurely to acquittal.
Other notable performances come from Alex Freeman as the gum-chewing, unprincipled Juror #7, John Liskey as an older voice of wisdom, James Houska as a particularly loud and ugly bigot and Leo Poroshin as a European immigrant who cites the outsider´s view of American democracy. Ultimately every character gets a moment to shine as he breaks from conformity. The entire cast makes their respective moments gleam.
The show´s greatest strength is the commitment of director Bob Robinson, who ensures that the dramatic beats resonate authentically. The show starts off stuffy, with actors seemingly afraid to take pauses, but once the story starts rolling the production hums like a fine-tuned engine with contained explosions that drive the play to the finish.
The best part about the script and story of “Twelve Angry Men” is its universality. One could easily take the drama off the meticulously detailed retro set, designed by Robinson and Bob Nees, and stage the play in the present day. Examples of prejudice and unfounded bias occur daily on television, radio and Facebook chat walls. But Riverwalk´s production is worth seeing to witness those arguments play out in real time, reminding audiences of where we were and how far we still have to go.
“Twelve Angry Men”
Riverwalk Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan 16; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 17-18; 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19 $10 Thursday/ $14 Friday- Sunday/ students, seniors and military $2 discount 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com