Twelve Angry Men is a play being performed at the Garrick Theater starring Jeff Fahey, Martin Shaw, Nick Moran and Robert Vaughn. It’s the story of twelve men locked inside a jury room, having to decide the fate a 16 year old boy on trial for allegedly murdering his father. If convicted, the boy will receive a mandatory death sentence so one life literally hangs in the balance. It’s a scorching hot day in New York and the members of the jury are tired and exhausted. Before the debate even starts, they decide to take a perfunctory vote thinking that all twelve will vote to convict, the case will be closed and all can go home.
A preliminary vote is taken and much to their surprise, juror number, 8 played by Martin Shaw, votes for not guilty. He simply isn’t ready to send a 16 year old boy to death without first sitting for at least an hour to discuss this momentous decision. Much to the consternation of all present, the jury members are then forced to deliberate the case and this is how the story unfolds. One man standing for what he believes in face of rabid opposition, using the power of human discourse to convince the remaining members of the jury that there just might be enough reasonable doubt to set the boy free.
The fascinating aspect of the play is that it all unfolds in a locked room, there are no special effects, no change of scenery, no hocus-pocus. This is a raw analysis of the workings of the American criminal justice system, a dissecting study of human nature and a testament to the liberating, transformative power of human discourse in a democratic society. Each jury member has a very distinct personality, having had prior life experiences and preconceived notions that color their judgment, making the journey towards a verdict a lot more emotionally charged and tortuous than one might expect.
The play is based on the 1957 American movie “Twelve Angry Men”, one of my favorite all time classics, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda. It was remade in 1997, this time starring Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott and James Gandolfini. Amazingly enough, the remake is just as good as the original, something that is exceedingly rare indeed.
The play also does justice to the movies on which it was based on and all cast members deliver compelling performances. However, four names deserve especial recognition. Jeff Fahey imparts on his character an unnerving combination of suppressed rage, caused by his prior relationship with his son, and an almost irrational contempt for other people’s opinion, honoring the performance of George C. Scott. On the other hand, Martin Shaw exhales tranquility and calm in the face of mounting adversity as the juror number 8, originally played by Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon. Miles Richardson distils a potent dose of venom as a hatemongering racist, while Robert Vaughn plays a frail old man just trying to hold his ground and speak his mind despite his failing health.
As said before, this play is a lot more than an emotionally charged courtroom drama. It is a raw analysis of the workings of the American criminal justice system, a dissecting study of human nature and a testament to the liberating, transformative power of human discourse in a democratic society. If you can’t watch the play, don’t miss the movies, they are classics for a very good reason.