FRANKLIN, Tenn.– One of the toughest challenges for performing artists is to make us look at something we think we know well in a new way. Studio Tenn Theatre Company does just that with its gripping rendition of Twelve Angry Men.
Artistic Director Matt Logan and his top-flight cast fill a courtroom in the Historic Williamson County Courthouse with an electrifying look at jury deliberations following a 1950s murder trial. It’s about more than just reaching a verdict, of course – there are the universal and timeless struggles of reason versus prejudice, of idealism versus cynicism and of compassion versus cruelty. Studio Tenn’s artists get us to look beyond the courtroom foundations of Reginald Rose’s classic drama so that we examine ourselves and how we relate to others.
Twelve Angry Men began its performance life as a 1954 teleplay on the CBS live anthology series “Studio One” before being adapted the following year into a play. A 1957 film version directed by Sidney Lumet starring Henry Fonda followed, and since then several stage and TV versions of the story – including some with female jurors – have been mounted. A Roundabout Theatre Company-produced national tour starring Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”) played at Tennessee Performing Arts Center in 2008.
In case any readers haven’t seen one of the aforementioned productions, the setup is effectively simple – a jury deliberating whether a 16-year-old accused of stabbing his father to death is guilty of first-degree murder initially has one hold-out when polled for a verdict. Juror No. 8 (played by Studio Tenn Managing Director Jake Speck) isn’t sure the teenager committed the crime, which will be a ticket to death row if the defendant is convicted.
That reasonable doubt rubs some of his fellow jurors the wrong way, particularly the very opinionated Juror No. 3 (Jeremy Childs) and a rather pushy Juror No. 10 (Conrad John Schuck). Sparks and words fly as the deliberations reveal the characters of those deciding the young man’s fate.
The performances we get from Studio Tenn’s cast are very detailed. For example, the Middle-European origins of Juror No. 11 are revealed in the accent and deliberate, precise delivery of English words that Garris Wimmer has fashioned for his character. It rings true – this is a man who has worked very hard to become part of his adopted country’s way of life, and that includes the way he speaks what for him is a second language.
Corey Caldwell has adopted an appropriately smarmy voice and manner for his role as Juror No. 12. That’s because he plays an advertising man with all the slickness Madison Avenue has to offer; when faced with the need to be more than superficial, watching that façade crack is fascinating.
Other finely-etched portrayals come from Nate Eppler as Juror No. 7, a boorish and cynical salesman; an observant and kind-hearted older man known as Juror No. 9 played by Cecil Jones; Henry Haggard, who clearly reveals the integrity and sense of fair play in his Juror No. 6; Brandon Hirsh, whose Juror No. 5 powerfully presents dignity and strength in the face of bigotry and derision from some of his fellow jurors; and Chuck Long, who as the mild-mannered Juror No. 2 makes his character’s progression from meek to assertive completely believable.
Eric D. Pasto-Crosby turns in a wonderfully measured performance as the cool and rational Juror No. 4. He says as much – sometimes more – with his controlled demeanor as he does with his analytical dialogue.
Derek Whittaker as usual brings rock-solid skills to his portrayal of first juror and foreman. His character is an accommodating sort who desires to work well with others; that’s true of Whittaker and his colleagues, too, as they play generously with each other throughout this show. All of them thoroughly demonstrate they are dedicated to serving the play; that’s of course the foundation for a good ensemble.
Schuck’s remarkable career has seen him in memorable work on television (Sgt. Enright in “Macmillian and Wife” with Rock Hudson and many other credits), stage (where his Broadway appearances include Daddy Warbucks in a revival of Annie and Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun with Reba McEntire) and film (where the title track in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H*, “Suicide is Painless,” is a reference to the engaging character he created). Now the Franklin resident is making his Studio Tenn debut after 53 years as an actor, and the considerable talent and lengthy experience he brings to the table as Juror No. 10 is on mesmerizing display.
His character is a loudmouth, but Schuck clearly knows less is more; he balances that noise with silent moments of intense engagement with other actors and the courtroom environment that speak volumes about his character. And while his man is an anti-immigrant-ranting bigot, Schuck’s portrayal reveals the man’s inner torment. Juror No. 10 is a flawed human and not a monster; a monster can be dismissed as an aberration, but a flawed human must be considered for the lessons he provides fellow fallible creatures like us.
Childs is brilliant. His Juror No. 3 is an unlikable bully, but Childs understands that playing that note all the time would quickly make his role a one-dimensional bore. He slowly and surely blends his character’s personal pain into the mix, and when what’s driving the man’s relentless push for conviction is ultimately revealed it’s profoundly heartrending. Childs has long been known as very thoughtful in the way he approaches his work and that clearly pays full dividends in this production.
Speck brings the right tone to his pivotal protagonist; his Juror No. 8 is firmly grounded in the world but also has a noble note of compassion that allows him to rise above mob mentality. The versatile Speck – who appeared as Bob Gaudio in Broadway’s Jersey Boys musical and was called to the set of ABC’s “Nashville” Thursday to film a scene involving his recurring role as a record label exec – makes what’s difficult look easy: His fully-fleshed character represents the better side of human nature without becoming a mere cardboard saint.
Former Williamson County Circuit Court Judge Russ Heldman is a nice casting touch as the play’s judge; Logan’s skilled selections are rounded out by the appearance of veteran actor/director Lane Wright as a court guard.
Logan’s scenic design for the play, which unfolds on a raised platform surrounded by public benches and jury box seating for the audience, is appropriately restrained. Lighting stands provide some theatrical illumination as deftly designed by Stephen Moss; Logan’s costuming nails the period and the personalities of each character.
Studio Tenn’s Twelve Angry Men is another fine example of the company’s penchant for putting their own fresh, first-class stamp on well-known works. The prospect of this stellar cast building on their strong start with each subsequent performance should provide patrons with plenty to savor.
Twelve Angry Men continues through Nov. 4 at the Historic Williamson County Courthouse on the city square in Franklin. Tickets ($47.50) are available through the Franklin Theatre Box Office, (615) 538-2076 or at FranklinTheatre.com. For performance times and more information please visit StudioTenn.com.