Big Dawg Productions continues their thought-provoking season with a stellar production of “Twelve Angry Men,” directed by Katherine Vernon. It has to be intimidating to tackle a modern American classic that carries moral weight and the challenges of staging. By definition, most of the time the performers are sitting, and if one person is speaking, 11 others are not. But night after night, the entire cast must be present in the moment, listening and reacting to each other. In a sense, it is the ultimate ensemble piece.
“Twelve Angry Men” follows the deliberations of a jury at a homicide trial. A young man is accused of stabbing his father to death. It has been a long, hot week. Now they are trapped in a room together. At the outset, 11 of them are convinced of the accused’s guilt. But one juror, “Number 8” (Josh Bailey), is not ready to send him off to the electric chair without, at least, some discussion. He has doubt and unanswered questions. Let’s say the other 12 are not overjoyed to discover they have one hold out. So they set about trying to convince him to change his mind. Some attempt through bullying, others through sensible argument. Still, others watch and sift what is happening in front of them.
During the course of the following discussion, we meet The Foreman (Kim Ewonus), responsible for keeping order and moving the process forward; a belligerent bully reminiscent of several people currently on TV news (Ron Hasson); a very white-collar, determined, straight-laced businessman (Craig Kittner); a soft-spoken gentlemen upon appearance with a number of preconceptions (Dom Gibbs); a fast-talking man of loud, strong opinions and very little interest in others (Will Roden); a lonely older gentleman (Craig Myers); a bigot who yells his nastiness at people (Rich Deike); a thoughtful and idealistic immigrant (James Bowling); and a distracted and frustrated advertising executive (Alex Warff). The two wild cards are the strong, silent types: Anthony Corvino and Nick Smith. Neither of their characters are telegraphing where this is going, but they are listening carefully.
Vernon and set designer Scott Davis have transformed the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street into a theatre in the round. The jurors are in the center of the theatre with the audience watching them like a sports arena—and there are moments that feel like the audience is watching something heated and desperate unfold. We are so close to the action, it’s impossible to create a sense of distance.
Taking on the role of Number 8, made famous by Henry Fonda, Bailey puts his own spin on the man who quietly but firmly asks for a little more consideration of the value of human life. His jittery nervousness leading up the first big reveal, with the knife in question, is understated but believable. People slowly coming on board with his interest in re-enacting the testimony of the witnesses clearly pleases him, but outside of an occasional satisfied nod or smile, he doesn’t really gloat. It is Bailey’s calm politeness that carries the day more than anything. In many ways, he is supposed to be the hero—but Bailey doesn’t play up that aspect. He is more distressed than heroic. The room becomes the microcosm of the bully spewing hate into the air. Someone who quietly and civilly stands up to him and the surrounding group must decide to muster the courage.
What makes the show fascinating is watching each performer personally wrestle with the question of speaking out. Each truly is in the moment and responding personally to the situation. While some are on their feet and active, others, like Nick Smith, physically recoil each time the knife is brandished. It is a completely natural response and I was right there with him.
The script addresses a lot of issues that haunt me: How does one actually have a civil disagreement with people? And not a shouting match that allows people to dismiss each other, but actually find a way to hear each other? How do we reach someone—get past the angry walls that prevent us from taking each other seriously? How do we communicate with someone we don’t respect? How do we get past our own predilections to something of real substance? How do we find the humanity in people when it is easier to vilify?
For 90 minutes 12 men walk through the gauntlet with varying degrees of success. It is inspiring to see some of the journeys: the reluctant Wharff, the erudite Kittner, the certain Roden. A few waffle their way through and when pressed can’t explain it, it’s an emotional response: Smith, Corvino, Gibbs, and on the other side of the issue, Hasson and Deike’s bullies can’t actually explain what they are feeling either. But the intensity of it drives them. None of the performances would work or make sense without the others at the table.
Perhaps that is the real message of the show, the real answer to the questions: None of this would work without opposing viewpoints. The cast brings a tremendous energy and verve to the production. For a show largely staged with the cast seated, the amount of energy brought to stage is completely overwhelming. They ride a roller coaster of human emotion, self and group discovery far more intense than it appears—and it appears to be pretty intense.
I truly mean this as a compliment to Vernon and the cast: At the end of the show, I had to get someplace alone and quite to decompress. The magnitude of what they created left me in deep need of time to re-calibrate and focus. Art is supposed to provoke a response; they succeeded.
“Twelve Angry Men” is a startling and incredible production and really shows off the skills of the performers and director. I got the last ticket the night I was there—so, in other words, buy early because they will go quickly. The show is important and timely, but the cast and director make its reflection of our emotions over reason a call to bridge the chasms in our humanity. The work is beautiful to watch.