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Theater Handles ‘Twelve Angry Men’ 

“Twelve Angry Men” centers around racial prejudice in 1957.

Could you convict a troubled teen for killing his abusive father? Even, if the death penalty was involved?

That’s the situation facing an all-male jury in the Reginald Rose drama “Twelve Angry Men,” currently in production at The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport and running through Nov. 3.

This production knocks it out of the park! Beautifully directed, with a cast of superb actors, the well-crafted script is aided by a set and costumes that strongly depict the 1950s in which the story is set. White collar jurors wear suits, crisp shirts and ties. Blue collar jurors purposely look out of place amidst their wealthier counterparts.

The plot focuses on the deliberations of an all-white jury that converges in the un-air conditioned deliberation room on the hottest day of the year. Initially, it appears this will be a slam-dunk decision to convict a young African-American teen of murdering his dad.

The first vote of the jury results in an 11-1 guilty verdict. The one hold-out, Juror No. 8, a precise, logical, open-minded architect (played with great wisdom and passion by Steven Hauck), becomes a champion for the defendant. To the dismay of his fellow jury members, No. 8   slowly and painfully lays out a case that is far different from the one presented in the courtroom – one he insists will offer a reasonable doubt surrounding the youth’s guilt and make conviction impossible.

Challenging him from the start is the play’s antagonist, Juror No. 3, played most adeptly by Mike Boland. No. 3 is a complex man. At first, he appears to be a hard-hearted, close-minded individual who will fight No. 8 every step of the way. As the plot unfolds, though, we learn more about his own personal hardships which have obviously colored his response to this case.

The challenges built into this script have been handled with seeming ease by the director, Igor Goldin, and his cast. The deliberation table, placed horizontally in the center of the jury room, has many of the jurors initially seated with their backs to the audience. As the play progresses, some will “cheat” and sit in profile at the table. At times, as the deliberations heat up, each will find a moment to walk around the room, giving the audience time to get to know him better.

The bigoted opinions of many of the jurors are laid out from the onset. “These people are not like us,” is a sentiment that many of the jurors convey.

The jurors represent different economic and cultural members of a 1950s melting pot. There’s Juror No. 11, a European watchmaker who appears to have quickly adopted his new country’s culture and laws. Actor Leer Leary perfectly brings this proud new American and his respect for America’s legal system to life.

Juror No. 9, an astute, kindly older gentleman (played with warmth and sensitivity by Joseph Ragno), is quickly picked upon by Juror No. 10, an Archie Bunker-type, whose prejudices originally appear harmless, but whose anger and racist attitude soon spew such vile comments that even the most cool and collected jurors, like No. 4, an elite stockbroker, become disgusted. (No. 10’s despicable racist attitude is depicted perfectly by Adam Heller, while No. 4’s polished, unflappable image is portrayed seemingly effortlessly by Philip Hoffman).

What makes “Twelve Angry Men” such a strong piece of dramatic literature is the light that it shines on prejudice. Even though race relations in this country have improved since the l950s, bigotry still exists. This production hammers that point home so effectively that few people could leave this production and not be moved to examine their own preconceived notions of what others are like based upon a person’s age, religion, ethnic background or economic status.

“Twelve Angry Men” initially aired as a teleplay in 1954 on the CBS live dramatic series, Studio One. It soon was adapted for both stage and the silver screen.

The John Engeman production seems flawless. A special nod should go out to Hoffman and Heller for their dramatic altercation after one of Juror No. 10’s most repugnant racial rants.

The Engeman production of Twelve Angry Men is a must-see for serious theater lovers. Visit engemantheater.com for more information.

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