Sunday, January 27, 2013

Verdict: ICCT Does Classic Play Justice

Rip Russell as Juror #8.
by James E. Trainor III

Photos by Jordan Running

Iowa City - Twelve Angry Men, an American classic that has received many productions throughout the years, opened at Iowa City Community Theatre this weekend. ICCT's production, directed by Kehry Anson Lane, reminds us why this play is such an important piece.

The effect of the piece begins well before the action, in the way the production is staged. The set, designed by Michael Blake, puts the audience on either side of a long room that can barely contain a large table. The green-and-white color of the walls and tile floor takes us back to a time when race relations were not so amiable in our country, and the claustrophobic feel adds volumes to the tension that pushes the play forward.

The jury must deliberate on a homicide; a young man, apparently a minority, has been accused of murdering his father with a switchblade. At the beginning of the play, there is one man (Rip Russell) who refuses to vote with the rest; he can't convince himself that there is no reasonable doubt in a murder trial with rather circumstantial evidence. Others, including an angry father (Luis A. Sierra), a loud bigot (John Bednarik) and a callous salesman (Eric Burchett) blow him off, but must give him his say, and so begins a very intense and dramatic deliberation.

Lane makes great use of the space, constantly moving actors around this tiny room even though they have no way to really get away from each other. Lane's direction is very effective: the pacing is tight, the tension is high, and most of the actors listen very closely as the arguments play out and the men begin to divide into "guilty" and "not guilty" camps. Though some of the dialogue at the beginning lacks a little urgency, the drama draws the audience in quickly and watching the characters trying to convince each other and pick holes in each other's arguments is very exciting. When a switchblade is brought in as evidence halfway through the first act, it seems like there might actually be a fight in the jury room.

Rip Russell as Juror #8 and Luis A. Sierra as Juror #3.
Twelve Angry Men has a skilled cast and some great character work; John Bednarik, Jaret Morlan and Stephen Stonebraker stand out in particular. Bednarik shouts and fumes, trying to control the room with his anger, and Morlan (who is on the same side for much of the play) cuts an interesting contrast, holding a lot of power with his calm, quiet presence. Stonebraker is fascinating to watch as the statements of the others cause him to change his mind again and again; sometimes it seems he's trying too hard, but his objective work is always clear. All in all this is a great ensemble, and they navigate this jagged journey of a script with skill and intensity.

One of the great things about this play, when it is done well, is that the themes really hit home. A procedural drama like this reminds us of why our legal system is so great. One of the best spokesmen for the American legal system is a juror who happens to be an immigrant (Ali Ajram); he elegantly defends the rights of the others to hold their unpopular opinions, and reminds us that due process, and democracy itself, is quite remarkable, and something we shouldn't take for granted. The basic premise of the play is that the characters must decide if they can live up to these high ideals, or if they're going to vote based on their own prejudices or the pressure of the other jurors. It's not an easy thing, and it makes excellent material for the stage.

ICCT has a long history of bringing classics of American drama to the stage, and this one is certainly done justice by the director, the design team, and the cast. It continues to play this afternoon, as well as next weekend. Tickets here.

No comments: