Beyond a reasonable doubt
Durango Lively Arts presents an American classic

Athena Gundlach, who portrays Juror No. 8, looks on during a rehearsal of “Twelve Angry Men” last week./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Judith Reynolds

"The kid is guilty, and he’s gotta burn,” Juror No. 3 shouts across the table. Explosive and venomous, he’s convinced the defendant committed murder.

If you’ve ever served on a jury, this guy is uncomfortably familiar. Emotional and impatient, he’s opinionated and doesn’t want to discuss anything.

Juror No. 3 figures prominently in “Twelve Angry Men,” a classic American drama by Reginald Rose. A local production opens Thurs., May 18, in the Fort Lewis College Gallery Theatre. Presented by the Durango Lively Arts Co., the play will run two weekends.

“I’ve been campaigning to do this for several years,” director Bernard Wolsieffer said in an interview last week. Wolsieffer is a multimedia specialist at BP America Production Co. “I have a day job to support my role in theater,” he added with a smile. “In the last eight years, I’ve found a new life. I’ve been in just about every production possible, acting, tech and now directing. I’ve always had a vision of ‘12’ on stage, and now we’re going to do it.”

Originally written as a teleplay by Rose in 1954, “Twelve Angry Men” became a critically acclaimed film in 1957. It starred Lee J. Cobb as the infamous Juror No. 3. Henry Fonda portrayed Juror No. 8, the lone man standing against the rest in order to question incongruities in the case. The stakes are high: a guilty verdict automatically carries a death sentence. Some jurors care; others don’t.

Over the last 50-plus years, “Twelve Angry Men” has taken on new life and importance. It’s been performed all over the United States; a number of famous British casts have offered it in London. And in 1997 director William Friedkin revived the work for television with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in the principal roles. Playwright Rose again crafted the screenplay. The new version added four African American actors to the previously all-white ’50s jury. Another stage version, “Twelve Angry Jurors,” including women, has been around for some time as well.

Although Wolsieffer has cast five men and seven women, he won’t use the generic, modernized title. “I’ll use the original title,” he said. “I won’t cheapen the name by using something it isn’t.”

To perform the work without intermission, Wolsieffer has made substantial cuts from the original script. “I’ve adapted an adaptation,” he said. “Our version runs about one hour and 10 minutes. That enables us to keep the intensity. At the beginning, everyone is thrust into a jury room, and they have to decide a murder case before they leave. The cast members symbolize a cross section of America in 1954, and the issues are still relevant today: ignorance, racism, bigotry, cruelty.”

The play evolved out of Rose’s experience on a jury panel. His characters demonstrate considerable psychological range. It’s no surprise that the films have been shown in college psych classes, law schools and MBA programs, as vivid examples of psychological types, death penalty issues, group dynamics and decision making. “Twelve Angry Men” also has been used as a teaching tool in semantics classes.

Wolsieffer and company will be performing in Fort Lewis College’s black-box theater, perfect for intimate, in-the-round staging.

“Blocking became simpler in the round,” he said.

“We’ll begin with a voiceover of the courtroom instructions in blackout. That was a no brainer: It eliminates six characters, the judge, alternates, etc. Then the jurors file into the jury room, the theater.”

As in other Durango Lively Arts productions, one goal is to have a multi-generational, community cast. Seeing the jurors, you’d never guess ages range from 14 to 70. And Wolsieffer said he has capitalized on people’s strengths. Juror No.8, the calm, courageous and reasonable lynch pin, will be portrayed by Athena Gundlach.

“Athena’s smarter than she realizes,” Wolsieffer said. “She’s my defacto AD (assistant director), my second pair of eyes and ears. And she takes risks.”

Bart Plumbley (Pagosa Springs) will play the antagonist, Juror No. 3. Plumbley is new to the company, Wolsieffer said. “I saw Bart’s interaction with the other actors,” and it felt right to cast him in a demanding role. Another tendentious character, Juror No. 10, “is a tough guy with a preternatural smirk. He’ll be portrayed by David Brost.” Ilana Stern will be Juror No. 4, a well-heeled stockbroker. “She’s competent and mature, dressed to the nines,” Wolsieffer said.

Other jurors include: Benjamin Bailey-Buhner (Mancos), Tyler Black, Albert Carlson, Cathy Hartney, Shelly Hartney, Jodi Henderson, Maddie Meigs, Nora Richards, Lisa Zwisler, and Laurel Lee as the guard.

At its heart, the play is about the primal conflict between emotion and reason, certainty and skepticism, and the meaning of “reasonable doubt.” Beautifully structured to have the feel and rhythm of a real jury deliberation, Rose’s play has achieved an almost iconic status. The atmosphere of a pressure cooker lays the groundwork for one of the most compelling dramas of our time. •



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