The Flat Rock Playhouse production of 12 Angry Men, directed expertly and with great sensitivity by Neela Muñoz, is a sell-out, and deservedly so. Since Reginald Rose’s material’s first appearance in 1954, as an Emmy Award-winning television production on CBS’s Studio One, starring Franchot Tone and Robert Cummings, and especially since its 1957 movie release (Sidney Lumet’s feature film directorial debut, and a memorable triumph for stars Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and especially Henry Fonda, who co-produced for the first and last time), the play, in its several stage adaptations (this one by Sherman Sergel) has proved a theatrical warhorse.
But if you’ve seen it before (perhaps in the William Friedkin remake, starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, Edward James Olmos, and Jack Lemmon in the Henry Fonda role), and you doubt that seeing it live would be worthwhile, think again.
And if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat — if you can get in. Flat Rock has assembled a cast of local luminaries who deliver performances worthy of their better-known predecessors, and the unique setting adds significant power and pleasure to the proceedings.
The story itself is relatively simple: 12 jurors must decide a murder case that seems sufficiently open and shut that 11 are so certain of the accused’s guilt, everyone expects to bring in a verdict in a matter of minutes — in time to escape the jury room’s heat, to beat the impending rain and to make it to the evening’s ballgame.
But that twelfth juror — a thoughtful architect, here embodied impressively by Michael MacCauley, who may not erase the enduring image of Henry Fonda but who creates a characterization strong enough to stand beside it — is troubled by inconsistencies in the evidence, including eyewitness testimony, and who believes that the impoverished, non-white defendant has received inadequate counsel from his public defender.
No one else on the panel is inclined to give the accused a second thought, but Juror 8, as the architect is known, since the jury remains anonymous, addresses his concerns methodically:
Is the murder weapon, a switchblade knife, really as unique as the prosecution declared?
Could the blade have been plunged into the victim’s chest at that angle?
Did the elderly, somewhat lame, upstairs neighbor who heard the shout of “I’m going to kill you!” really have time to race through his apartment and down the stairs to see the killer escape? Was it possible for the woman across the way to witness the crime through the dark and through the windows of the last two cars of an elevated train?
Was the slapping of the accused really enough motivation to make him kill his father?
And did it make any sense that the murderer would return to the scene of the crime several hours later?
The script uses a neat trick that makes 12 Angry Men enduringly entertaining: It appropriates the techniques of a classic whodunit not to resolve a mystery but to unravel a pat conclusion. There’s great fun to be had in watching certainties chipped at and reversed, but if that’s all 12 Angry Men was — an amusement — it would not have maintained its grip on the American imagination for more than half a century. Like its near contemporaries, Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird — also court-based dramas — 12 Angry Men addresses prejudice; in this case, racial prejudice, yes, but, perhaps more important, prejudice of the heart and mind.
Most of the jurors, despite the play’s title, are rather gentle men:
Juror 1, the foreman (Kevin McKee), who just wants to keep things reasonable;
Juror 2 (Peter Jaye), a very sweet man who keeps trying to make peace between the hotheads; Juror 4 (Charles Flynn-McIver), the stockbroker who doesn’t sweat, sees himself as the epitome of rationality, and whose glasses end up playing a surprising role in tipping the balance of belief;
Juror 5 (Andrew Hampton Livingston), a young man who grew up in the same neighborhood as the accused and dislikes assumptions made about the poor;
Juror 6 (David Earl Hart), a housepainter by trade who tries to keep himself in check but readily comes to the defense of others;
Juror 7 (Scott Treadway), whose only conviction is that baseball is more important than this verdict;
Juror 9 (Kermit Brown), an elderly fellow who won’t be pushed around or intimidated into taking anything for granted;
Juror 11 (Nathan Thomas), an immigrant who clearly cares more for American notions of justice and fair play than many of the natives;
and Juror 12 (Willie V.R. Repoley), an advertising man who’s just a little too full of himself and yet, in the end, bows to reason.
That leaves Juror 10 (David Novak), whose racism becomes increasingly overt, and whose tirade about “those people” isolates him from everyone else, and Juror 3 (Ralph Redpath), whose troubles with his own son — roughly the same age as the defendant — prove to be the crux of the matter.
Each of these actors gives a masterful performance, and those you’ve seen before may surprise you with the people they become here. There must be hundreds of years of stage experience between these fellows, and one of the delights of this production is watching several generations interact.
Another great joy is the setting itself: The Historic Hendersonville Courthouse. The design staff and technicians have made the most of this perfect location, which is as much a performer as any of the actors. 12 Angry Men could be produced successfully anywhere, but it’s especially lovely in an actual courthouse, which contributes so much to the delicate atmosphere.
Rarely is such a strong work presented in so balanced, polished, and affecting a production. A ticket or two might still be available; if not, why not ask the Flat Rock management to consider bringing this play and cast back to this venue next year?
12 Angry Men, by Reginald Rose, adapted by Sherman Sergel. Directed by Neela Muñoz. Lighting Design: Michael Mauren. Casting Director and Artistic Consultant: Dave Clemmons. Sound Design: Keith Shuford. Scenic Design: James W. Johnson. Costume Design: Ashili Arnold. Properties Master: Paul Ferraldi. Technical Director: Bruce R. Bailey. Stage Manager: Johanna M. Erlenbach. With Kevin McKee (Juror 1/Foreman), Peter Jaye (Juror 2), Ralph Redpath (Juror 3), Charles McIver (Juror 4), Andrew Hampton Livingston (Juror 5), David Earl Hart (Juror 6), Scott Treadway (Juror 7), Michael MacCauley (Juror 8), Kermit Brown (Juror 9), David Novak (Juror 10), Nathan Thomas (Juror 11), and Willie V. R. Repoley (Juror 12).
Through July 25 at the Historic Henderson County Courthouse. Shows at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. $34. (828) 693-0731 and http://www.flatrockplayhouse.org