From stockades in the town square to modern-day courts of public opinion, incidents of crime and punishment are endlessly fascinating to the public.
If the crime is murder and the punishment is possible execution, then voyeuristic interest is extra high. And those are the stakes in the gritty drama Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose.
The next Red Deer Players production, starting on Thursday, June 11, at the Scott Block theatre, takes the audience where few people ever go — behind the closed door of a jury deliberation room.
The play is about the homicide trial of a youth accused of killing his father, and the jurors who decide his fate.
It can be considered the opposite of O.J. Simpson’s salacious celebrity saga, as the accused is a poor Hispanic who’s discounted by some more affluent members of mainstream society.
Most of the Florida jury is ready to convict him, based on circumstantial evidence alone. But one juror thinks otherwise. And that juror, played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film version of the story, has to try to convince others to see things from his perspective.
The abstract concept of ‘guilt beyond a reasonable doubt’ isn’t easy to get across, however — especially when some fellow jurors don’t want to be sequestered for any longer than they absolutely have to.
One man even announces that he wants to get home in time to attend a sporting event that evening.
Rose, who wrote the play after serving on a real-life jury, created some very realistic, fallible characters, said the play’s director Lori Lane, who loves the true-to-life moments.
“The jury of 12 people represents all walks of society and all types of individuals. You can even identify with some of them, personally, or see someone you know in their attitudes,” added Lane.
While the characters must agree on an important decision, they all bring their own circumstances, beliefs and hang-ups to the table. In some cases, this incudes a bias against poor people or minorities.
Although Twelve Angry Men was written in the 1950s, Lane believes the language and themes remain current, so the action was moved to the present day. “The attitudes of the people, their perceptions and prejudices, they aren’t a lot different than they are now.”
Her biggest challenge was coming up with enough talented and committed community actors.
Lane admitted some people doubted she could get a dozen strong male actors to audition. But the script was so good, she said, there really wasn’t a big problem. “I had some people in mind that I knew … but these are such tough, substantial, meaty roles” that a dozen actors were found — ranging from novices to community theatre veterans.
The actors, encouraged to flesh out their characters through research, were brought into a Red Deer courtroom to talk to a judge and a former juror.
Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Monica Bast even agreed to join the production. She will take on the role of the judge who addresses the jury at the start of the drama, said Lane.
The director, who last helmed local productions of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, believes Twelve Angry Men provides a fascinating, fly-on-the wall view of the kind of discussions that go on behind the scenes in a murder trial.
The play runs from June 11 to 14 and 16 to 20. Tickets are $24 for the 8 p.m. shows (except for June 16 and 17 when they are $17.50) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.