Producing “12 Angry Men”

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12 Angry Men

12 Angry men by Reginald Rose

Performance length: about One Hour and 45 minutes, no intermission.

ACTING: Medium

SET DESIGN: Easy

COSTUME DESIGN: Easy

CAST POTENTIAL: As the title suggests, this play is made up of 12 disparate men who form a jury at a criminal trial. Though, because of the anonymity of the jurors (they are all called by their respective numbers), many directors have successfully made room for female actors by adjusting the title (12 Angry People/Jurors/Women).

CROWD REACTION: The play was originally written as a 50-minute live teleplay that was later turned into a 90-minute film with Henry Fonda. The stage play was written just a few years after the film, and it has since had countless revivals. Even though many things about the text are dated (the lack of gender diversity being one of them), the themes and issues in the play have made it relevant for generations.

GENRE: Drama

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SUMMARY: 12 men have been called to serve their civic duty: in this case, to determine whether a young Puerto Rican boy had, beyond a reasonable doubt, murdered his father. When the jury initially votes, only Juror #8 declares the boy “not guilty.” Even though there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest the boy is guilty of murder, #8 decides to vote against his 11 peers because “it’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”

Systematically, one by one, the jurors discuss the facts evident in the trial and discover that each are suspect when under close scrutiny. Furthermore, through the dialogue we discover the personal (and subconscious) motivations behind each juror: classism, racism, laziness, or deep emotional scars hinder some of the most obstinate jurors from viewing the case objectively. By the play’s end, Juror # 8 is able to sway the rest of his peers and the boy is acquitted.

CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: This play is more about the individuals in the jury room than it is the murder case. Each character deals with their own personal biases, each seeking different answers to the same questions.  The cast’s challenge is to convincingly show each character’s journey, from one distinct choice to another, in order for the outcome of this play to be believable.

While there are no “heroes” or “villains” per se, Rose has constructed the play in such a way that we identify with some characters more than others. Juror #8 is the play’s clear protagonist, a selfless icon of liberal compassion and defender of the democratic process. Meanwhile, Juror #3 is an intolerant, difficult, and demanding entrepreneur, whose embittered past with his son has tainted the way he views the case. His is the hardest and last vote to be swayed.

SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: Rose said one of the major elements he wanted to include in the play were physical problems such as the atmosphere of an uncomfortable, cramped room with little ventilation and hard, unforgiving chairs. The Henry Fonda film does an excellent job creating this atmosphere. But a stage play has the advantage of more depth and a fully-visible ecology (that is, the placement and proximity of things on stage). The physical problems can be brought to the forefront with a clever manipulation of dimensions and special relationship.

The characters personalities and background are indicated to the audience more by their dress and mannerisms than anything else. There is a stockbroker, an architect, a salesman, who all wear jackets and ties; accompanied by a high school football coach, a mechanic, and a house painter, who each wear open collars. Since the cast is literally stuck on stage for the entire play and are under the careful scrutiny of the audience the whole time, small subtle cues in dress can go a long way.

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: Both an indictment and defense of the American judicial system, Twelve Angry Men challenges the authenticity and integrity of those 12 individuals whose opinions and choices result in absolute (and often devastating) consequences.  If Juror #8 was not in the room, the Puerto Rican boy would have most likely been sentenced to death.  Yet, he was there. And the power of his rhetoric was enough to sway the opinions of 11 strangers.  All Juror #8 achieved to do, however, was prove that there was “reasonable doubt” about the boy’s guilt.  He never proves that the boy did not kill his father.  So, the audience is left to reconcile whether or not #8’s liberal values and scrutiny were actually beneficial. If the boy was not guilty, then #8 has saved an innocent life. If the boy was actually guilty, however, then a murderer has been acquitted.   It is this dichotomy that challenges how delicate and precarious our judicial system really is.

About Matthew McMahan

Matthew McMahan is an actor, writer, and dramaturg, who has worked both in New York and regionally for theatre companies such as the Wooster Group, the Atlantic Theatre Company, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Young Playwrights, Inc., and the Living Newspaper. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Drama from Tufts University in Medford, MA.
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