SALT LAKE CITY — Pioneer Theatre Company has always set a high standard of performance in Utah. Twelve Angry Men has certainly been the highlight of my theatre season this year. Beautifully staged by director John Going, this meaty play nearly sets the mark for perfection in combining script, actor and designer.
Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men was originally produced for television in September 1954 when it was broadcast live on the CBS program Studio One. With the television success, Rose rewrote the drama for the stage in 1955 and later again for a feature film under the same title which was released in 1957 starring Henry Fonda.
PTC’s production opens with an empty jury room located on an upper floor of the courthouse overlooking the city. It’s not yet 5 PM—shown by the wall clock which keeps time throughout the show—and the warm sun cuts through the window blinds and rests on the strong walls of the courthouse while paint begins to peal near the ceiling. Above we see the exterior of the building, Romanesque and featuring the blind scales of Lady Justice. A light comes up on her as the final words from the judge to the jury are overheard from the courtroom down the hall. “I urge you to deliberate earnestly and thoughtfully…you are faced with a grave responsibility,” we hear as they leave the courtroom and we see them turn the corner entering our jury room.
If I had to summarize this production in just one word it would be “immediacy.” Rose’s script is beautifully crafted to slowly and methodically reveal details of the case and more from the lives of our jurors. It is an honor to see such well-written work performed locally. If not for the occasional time-specific political and cultural references, I could see this play taking place at our own SLC courthouse.
I expect I entered the theatre a little less prepared than the average patron opening night. I am completely unfamiliar with the 1957 movie, but I entered anxious to see how the next two hours would go. I knew that the entire action of the play would take place in this single set and the conceit of the show seemed simple—a jury deliberating on their verdict. However, I was completely surprised at how quickly I was pulled into these characters on stage before me. Watching the audience on either side it was exciting to see how they physically reacted to the intense debate and story being disclosed on the stage. More than once I caught someone almost biting their nails in anticipation.
In those first few moments of the play when everyone entered—hot summer sweat marks and all—I worried I would not be able to keep track of everyone and their stories, especially since Rose uses no names in the show—each juror is known by their number. The costume design (Carol Wells-Day) was a wonderful help to me, providing visual reminders of the life details we slowly learned about each character. The three-piece suit of Juror 4 (Michael McKenzie) beautifully matched his calculated, yet very reserved and private personality. Juror 7 (Lou Liberatore)’s hot-head personality was beautifully accented with a warm color palette while Juror 6 (Steve Bethers)’s blue-collar background was evidenced in his clothing as well. Each man certainly wore their life story on the sleeve.
When the lighting was used to establish place I felt it was beautiful, an honest work of art. However, when used to direct the focus of the audience I found the lighting changes—highlighting a specific area of the stage—a little brutish; it was unnecessary and distracting. I was interrupted from the action of the play when the superb staging had already led my attention where it needed to be.
Pioneer, as one of four equity houses in Utah, has brought in one of the finest ensembles I have seen on a Utah stage. The acting was superb. This play offers a unique challenge—and treat, I imagine—since every character (minus the Guard) are on the stage all of the time. They are forced to always be at the top of their game. All character development must happen on the stage in a way to support each action taken and for the most part, I was delightfully pleased. Undoubtedly most reviews will praise the performances of Juror 8 (Alan Campbell) and Juror 3 (Bob Ari), and I certainly praise them as well, but I fear it would take far too long to highlight the wonderful work by each of the actors. Again, really the strongest ensemble I’ve seen on a Utah stage. The only weak link on the stage was Juror 6 (Steve Bethers). While his individual moments on the stage were very strong I felt that they lacked a clear development through the show and therefore felt his performance was somewhat disconnected and unsupported. I look forward to that through line gaining strength through the end of this run.
Again, this cast features some of the finest acting I’ve seen in the valley and when matched with Reginald Rose’s classic script, you will hard-pressed to find a better show in the valley. Beautifully crafted and performed, PTC’s production of Twelve Angry Men is first time I’ve been pulled to a standing ovation in years.
Twelve Angry Men plays through February 27: Mon-Thu at 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat at 8:00 PM, with an additional performance Saturdays at 2:00 PM. Performances take place in the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, located on the University of Utah campus at 300 South and 1400 East in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $22 – $40; Children K – 12 are half price on Mondays and Tuesdays. For more information call (801) 581-6961 or reserve tickets online at PioneerTheatre.org.