Daina Janitis reviews 12 Angry Men

Funny, isn’t it, how a few of the things you learned in high school (take THAT, Paul Simon) really do stick with you. When I knew I had the privilege to attend opening night of 12 Angry Men, a drama that is part of this year’s Drayton Entrainment line-up, I recalled a short essay by G.K. Chesterton – “Twelve Men”. It argued with great charm that having “professionals” decide on cases of law would inevitably lead to jaded and repetitive trials and verdicts. His last words have rung in my ears for more than 60 years:

“When it wants a library cataloged, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing ’round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.” 

What a beautiful ideal…and yet this marvelous play is a subtle reminder that the rights embodied in the U.S. constitution require far more than men “standing ‘round” to insure that justice is done in the courts. Canada shares the legal view of “reasonable doubt”- and the play shows what a sacred and precarious position this is. As our Supreme Court stated in 1997, “A reasonable doubt is not an imaginary or frivolous doubt. It must not be based upon sympathy or prejudice. Rather, it is based on reason and common sense. It is logically derived from the evidence or absence of evidence”.

In the stage version of this play, director Marti Maraden, set designer Allan Wilbee, the whole backstage crew- and twelve of the finest actors assembled in Canada – I am certain of that – let the play trust in its innate merits. Reginald Rose’s script began as a TV play in 1954, was adapted to a play in 1955 and became a film (with Henry Fonda as Juror #8) in 1957. Of course, as decades progressed, directors have tried making the jury mixed in race, colour, and gender, but the brilliant Drayton production crew have resisted muddying the power of this play. The actors are all male, they still have only numbers, not names, and they utter some of the best dramatic dialogue you will ever hear on stage.

The set recreates a jury room of the 1950s- mottled institutional green, not air-conditioned on the “hottest day of the year”, and spare enough to create claustrophobia on a stage that also has a brilliant revolving portion to make the washroom part of the set. When I first saw the table for twelve set squarely across the stage, four jurors’ backs to the audience, I wondered how this breaking of the 45-degree rule (is there such a thing?) would work.

No problem for a director as gifted as Marti Maraden. The table remains static- like an unbreakable rule, amendment, or expectation- on the stage, while the actors carry out a kind of choreography that demands their movement and results in character revelation more intense than the movie version could do.

And how to give adequate recognition to that cast- those numbered characters whom you will not ever confuse or forget if you see this production. Juror #8, Skye Brandon, is an imperturbable citizen, father, and architect- the gentle but persistent voice of reason who begins the deliberation in what was almost a certain commitment of the 16-year-old defendant to the electric chair. In most powerful contrast to him is #3, Benedict Campbell, as the closed-minded juror whose personal failure as a father underlies his unbreakable assurance that the boy is guilty. A lesser actor might have striven to “beg” for likeability or sympathy in his final pathos- but Campbell never does. I warrant you will recognize and remember Juror #3, the garage owner whose references to “those” people and their innate faults bring chilling reminders of recent presidential speeches. So, too, the accented watchmaker, #11, who is never identified as a Jew but carries a fervent belief in justice to his new home.

Instead of giving well-deserved praise for every actor in the cast, I urge you to take advantage of this production before August 3rd. The play is disturbingly timeless. It’s a reminder of how demanding, fragile, and yet glorious this whole ongoing experiment with democracy and human rights really is.

Daina Janitis, July 20, 2019

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