By Aaron Krause
Few plays are as riveting as Reginald Rose’s tense classic drama, Twelve Angry Men. In it, the stakes are sky-high as 12 people must decide whether a stranger lives or dies.
Late last year, South Florida theater audiences witnessed Palm Beach Dramaworks’ (PBD) exceptional production of the play. Now, Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts (PPTOPA) has mounted its own mostly strong professional production of Rose’s drama. It runs through Nov. 5 in the Susan B. Katz Theater of the Performing Arts at the River of Grass ArtsPark.
Twelve Angry Men is set during the 1950s in New York City. However, it could just as easily take place today in any location. Indeed, the play deals with timely and timeless issues such as the flaws of the American jury system, apathy, as well as prejudices and social attitudes of jurors.
As Twelve Angry Men begins, a dozen jurors are listening to the judge’s instructions following a week-long trial in which a young man stands accused of killing his father. The judge clearly tells the jurors that if they find the defendant guilty, he will sentence him to death. Further, the judge tells the jurors that their verdict must be unanimous.
Initially, 11 jurors vote to convict the accused—except for Juror No. 8. He has doubts about whether the suspect is guilty, so he wants to weigh the evidence and discuss the case before reaching a verdict. He is not in a rush, unlike at least one other juror who claims to have plans that evening.
As the play progresses, the feelings, attitudes, and prejudices of each juror come to light as they weigh the evidence, debate the case, and argue whether the suspect is truly guilty. Of course, each juror has his own opinions based on his personal history and circumstances.
Clearly, some of the characters would rather be anywhere but the hot jury room deliberating for who knows how long. So, they fidget, argue, wipe sweat from their foreheads, fan themselves, and perform other actions that are understandable given the circumstances.
The jury room may be literally hot, but the temperature is not the only source of heat emanating from that location.
PPTOPA’s believable production, under Jeffrey Bruce’s solid direction, packs plenty of figurative heat as the performers credibly convey the tension gripping the jury room.
But while the atmosphere is tense, not all the characters are uptight. Quite the contrary, Juror No. 8 seems calm, and actor James A. Skiba lends him a thoughtful and patient air. As Skiba deftly plays him, Juror No. 8 is open minded, rational, and willing to spend as much time as necessary to return a verdict that is honest and fair.
In stark contrast to Skiba’s patient Juror No. 8 is Ben Prayz’s adamant, intense, and angry Juror No. 3. This juror remains resolute in his conviction that the accused is guilty of killing his father.
Juror No. 3 claims that the evidence makes it clear that the young man on trial for his life is guilty. However, toward the end of the play, in an emotional scene, we learn that the evidence is not the only reason for this juror’s firm belief. The scene humanizes Juror No. 3 and reinforces the notion that a juror’s beliefs and background may interfere with his or her ability to remain unbiased throughout a case.
That emotional scene played out during PBD’s production late last year. Unfortunately, the scene is absent from PPTOPA’s production. Instead, Juror No. 3 seems to simply cave in to pressure from the others to change his verdict. But even in the scene’s absence, the notion that a juror would change his or her mind because of peer pressure is frightening. What does that say about the state of our judicial system?
The aforementioned scene’s absence is one of the only flaws in PPTOPA’s production, which is otherwise gripping. Again, the cast is uniformly strong, and so are the behind-the-scenes artists. They include John Blessed’s detailed and realistic set design of the jury room, Michael Graham’s realistic lighting design, as well as Alicia Rivera’s character-revealing costume design.
The entire cast is as follows: Michael Schenker as Juror No. 1, Francis Allen as Juror No. 2, Ben Prayz as Juror No. 3, Rick Prada as Juror No. 4, Nicholas Palazzo as Juror No. 5, Jeff Burleson as Juror No. 6, Jack B. Stein as Juror No. 7, James A. Skiba as Juror No. 8, David Hoffman as Juror No. 9, Bob Sharkey as Juror No. 10, Don Bearden as Juror No. 11, Richard Weinstock as Juror No. 12, and John Henry Parks as the Bailiff.
Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts’ production of Twelve Angry Men runs through Nov. 5. Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3 and 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5. The venue, Susan B. Katz Theater of the Performing Arts at the River of Grass ArtsPark, is located at 17195 Sheridan St. in Pembroke Pines. For tickets, go to Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts Presents: 12 Angry Men – Events (onthestage.tickets).