Cedar City • At the talk-back after the opening performance of Utah Shakespeare Festival's "Twelve Angry Men," actor Martin Kildare applied Cesar Cruz's comment on art to drama: "Theater should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed."
Obviously when Reginald Rose penned the play, he meant to shake up the complacency of his audience.
But the quotation also describes the dynamic that occurs in the jury room within the play. When the 12 men enter the room to reach a verdict on the murder trial they've just sat through, 11 of them share the opinion of juror No. 3: "I think this is one of those open-and-shut cases." Their discussion over the next few hours reveals how wrong they are.
Courtroom dramas have long been a dramatic staple, but most focus on trials. Like USF's 2012 production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Twelve Angry Men" is unusual in taking us behind the scenes to explore what happens when 12 men with very different temperaments are confined in a small space on a blistering day to make a life-and-death decision. Rose deliberately does not name the characters; we know them only by their jury numbers, but we do learn their occupations. That way he can assemble a cross-section of American society: young and old, professionals and blue-collar workers.
What they have in common is that, like most of us, they tend to judge by appearances one juror says tellingly, "The boy looks guilty" and they interpret "the facts" of the trial through the filter of their personal experience and biases. As Kildare's Juror No. 8 observes, "Prejudice obscures the truth."
He is the juror who suggests that they need to ask and answer some troubling questions about the case by reminding them that "sometimes the facts that are staring you in the face are wrong." As they review the evidence, tempers erupt, personalities clash and the weight of opinion subtly shifts in the room.
Director David Ivers stages the show without an intermission, which allows the tension to build and the momentum to ebb and flow. As jurors realign, they reposition themselves around the table or move around the room, which energizes their debate. The bathroom downstage right allows pairs or trios to interact and focuses the audience's attention. The production's rhythm is exceptional: Tension intensifies; a moment of humor or revelation releases it; there is a pause, often underlined by movement; and the process starts over.
Some jurors are more vocal than others, but each actor works to individualize his portrayal, which is crucial with type characters. And these human touches keep the play from becoming too melodramatic, which often happens when emotions run high. The acting ensemble is extremely strong and always on the same page, anchored by Kildare's ethical, sensible, articulate Juror No. 8. Roderick Peeples' Juror No. 10 is a big, loud bully of a man, intent on unloading his uninformed opinions on everyone. James Newcomb's smart-aleck, jokester Juror No. 7 couldn't be more different from A. Bryan Humphrey's cautious, logical Juror No. 4. Michael Harding is congenial and conciliatory as Juror No. 6, and Larry Bull becomes increasingly frustrated trying to keep things organized and moving as the foreman.
But it is the no-holds-barred performance of Max Robinson as Juror No. 3 that soars and shatters. His brusque, confident demeanor disintegrates as the tension mounts and details of the case merge with his memories and personal experience. Through the years, Robinson has given some impressive performances, but this one may be the finest.
"Twelve Angry Men" is ultimately a hopeful play, especially in our time when the positions on any question seem polarized and the art of discussion has largely disappeared. As Ivers says in his director's notes, "It's comforting to be reminded of a time when 12 men could sit in a jury room and be open to the possibility of change."
Review: 'Twelve Angry Men'
Dynamic, intelligent performances of a well-matched cast and taut direction energize Utah Shakespeare Festival's "Twelve Angry Men."
When • Reviewed on July 1; continues in rotating repertory with two other productions Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and afternoons at 2 through Aug. 31.
Where • Randall Jones Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the campus of Southern Utah University, 300 West and Center Street, Cedar City.
Tickets • $31 to $72 with discounts for groups, students, and seniors. Call 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or visit bard.org.
Running time • One hour and 45 minutes (no intermission).