Thoughtful '12 Angry Men' closes Theatre Lawrence’s current building well

A young man’s life hangs in the balance. He stands accused of murder. If he’s convicted, he will almost certainly be sentenced to death. The case looks open and shut. The guard assigned to the jury deliberation room notes simply, “The kid doesn’t stand a chance.”

But one of those jurors thinks it isn’t as simple as everyone wants to make it. He thinks they ought to talk about it and see if the prosecution’s case really does withstand the test of reasonable doubt. He has the daunting task of trying to convince 11 others.

That’s the premise of the classic play, “12 Angry Men," which opened Friday night at Theatre Lawrence and runs weekends through April 28.

Walt Boyd has the largest role in the ensemble piece, and he hits all the right notes as the contemplative but stalwart Juror No. 8. The facts of the case don’t sit right with him, and he’s adamant the men discuss it thoroughly before they just send the accused off to die.

The temptation is to play the role with fire and vigor, but Boyd resists that urge and portrays Juror No. 8 not as a crusader for one man’s rights but rather as a thoughtful, quiet man who’s had this thankless task thrust upon him. The unbearable heat in the un-air conditioned jury room and the prejudices of his fellow jurors make it a near-impossible job, and Boyd navigates his character’s frustration and natural quietude well.

Equally good are Randy Parker as the fiery Juror No. 3 and Ray Remp as the racist Juror No. 10. Both men have personal reasons for wanting a guilty verdict, and they fight passionately for them. Parker is alternately condescending and angry with the other men in the room. He portrays the projection of resentment towards his own son with a quiet seething that alternately bullies and explodes. Likewise Remp does a fine job displaying both the subtle and the ugly, unmasked faces of racism.

What makes the play so brilliant is the diversity of the men’s opinions and the fairness with which they are generally treated. Dennis Craig gives a solid performance as Juror No. 7, who honestly can’t understand why they keep arguing. He conveys well the sincerity of a man who just wants to get an unpleasant task done. Likewise, Shawn Trimble’s Juror No. 4 gives credence to arguments on both sides, treating those opposed to him with respect while still clinging to his convictions that the defendant is guilty. Trimble overplays his character’s conversion a bit, but we feel his horror at having been wrong on something so important.

Charles Whitman directs the play expertly. It largely consists of people sitting around talking, and that’s a hard thing to make interesting. Whitman knows when to have someone stand up, when to have someone move, when to bring everyone back to the table, and how to keep the pace of the show moving. The ebb and flow of the tension is maintained perfectly throughout. The play never drags.

Some versions of “12 Angry Men” present it without an intermission, but Theatre Lawrence adds one, and it’s an unfortunate choice. Parker’s Juror No. 3 is having to be restrained from assaulting Boyd’s Juror No. 8 when the blackout occurs. Intermission completely shatters the emotion of the moment. When the play resumes, all the actors come back in and set up in their same positions, but the feeling is gone. It takes awhile to get back into the milieu they’d created so well before the interruption.

“12 Angry Men” is nearly 60 years old, but it is just as timely as it was when it first aired as a television drama. Theatre Lawrence does a good job of bringing a classic to life. It leaves one thinking and closes the theater’s current building with aplomb.

“12 Angry Men” continues Thursday through Sunday and, next weekend, April 25 through 28 at Theatre Lawrence, 1501 New Hampshire St. For show times and ticket information, visit theatrelawrence.com.

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