This weekend’s production of “Twelve Angry Men” will undoubtedly face criticism for its deliberately exclusive male cast. Despite my skepticism of the original concept, upon seeing the show, I have to agree with the decision of director Gabe Greenspan ’14. The production would have excelled equally with an all female cast, or one with no gender boundaries, however, what Greenspan presents to us is something rarely seen in Yale theater: the unique dynamic between twelve very different men.
The production, adapted from Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay, is the simple presentation of a jury deciding the fate of a 19-year-old accused of murder. They are abiding by their duty to separate “facts from fancy,” to decide whether he is guilty “beyond reasonable doubt,” whatever that means. Nineteen is not too distant from a Yale audience, so to see his life fall in the hands of strangers, those who often seem too preoccupied with their own lives to be concerned with the fate of another, is the most poignant arch of the show. What moral dilemmas are we evading to satisfy our own selfishness?
A cast of 12 talented and established actors portrays this jury. The characters are not named; they are identified by number. These characters collectively expose every dimension of the everyman. These 12 angry men could be anyone, and the audience is just as much a part of the jury as the characters on stage. The play runs in real time with no entrances or exists. The men aren’t leaving the situation any time soon, and neither are we. With that comes an undeniable want to reach out and add our opinions and ask our own questions — the audience is frustratingly voiceless in a situation where each of us wants to be heard.
The seamless distinction between audience and actor is partly due to the choice of space. The confined and narrow stage in the Davenport Auditorium means it doesn’t exactly spring to mind when one considers staging a piece of theater, especially with an ensemble cast of 12 fully grown men. However, the claustrophobia, bleakness and blankness of the set means that it truly feels like a juror’s room. There is nothing fantastical about this set. When the characters complain about the heat and the cramped nature of the room, the audience doesn’t have to imagine — we feel it too.
However, Greenspan and his actors continue to make the space stimulating. The blocking is sometimes obtrusive, but continues to define this play as realist. We are watching it as it happens, and the authenticity of movement and speech doesn’t make it feel like an artificially staged piece of theater. This authenticity stems from the actors. It is ultimately an ensemble show and every performance is so accomplished that there is not one that stands out for either its exceptional quality or inability to keep up. There are 12 distinct characters played by 12 distinct actors, whose dynamic perfectly mirrors that of an actual jury: a conglomeration of strangers abiding by a common duty. It almost seems as though the script was written for these individual actors. While the tension in the room is high because of the subject matter, the actors appear relaxed in their performances — everything is a natural and logical action or dialogue for his character.
The show’s title does not do justice to the play’s careful sentimentality and emotion. It is not 90 minutes of men yelling at each other. In fact, the show’s quiet ending can join the other incredibly moving moments we have seen in this semester’s theater season. Despite all the questions “Twelve Angry Men” raises, Greenspan does not force any answers onto us, but rather gives us the tools necessary to decide for ourselves. Everyone will react to this in their own way; my protagonist won’t be yours. As one character repeats, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone.” Greenspan is pushing us to do this: stand alone and ask questions; the courage and firmness of the men who do so drive the play and the jury to its ultimate conclusion.
When the door closes at the end of the play, Greenspan leaves us with a haunting question: did they make the right choice? Guilty, or not guilty?