GUEST COLUMN…SCT’s ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is reason to rejoice

The Salem Community Theatre’s current production of Reginald Rose’s jury room drama, “Twelve Angry Men,” is a reason to rejoice if you love good theater. Based on the classic 1957 “Studio One” teleplay, the author’s own stage adaptation retains the crisp dialogue and moral integrity of the original while expanding to a full-length play without any unnecessary padding of plot or dialogue.

Director Terri A. Wilkes has assembled an excellent ensemble cast that transports the audience back to the 1950’s in a big city jury room, where an all-white, male jury is determining the fate of a young black or Hispanic male (the defendant’s minority status is never specified) charged in a capital murder case.

The young man, never seen or heard on stage, is accused of stabbing his father to death with a switchblade, after an argument seen or heard by two witnesses, an elderly man and a middle-aged woman.

Eric Kibler is superb as Juror #8, the lone holdout who slowly convinces the other jurors that there is reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt, necessitating a not guilty vote. Kibler takes the character from hesitant doubt to full conviction in careful, logical steps, showing the juror’s incrementally increasing confidence every step of the way.

The most persistent proponent of guilt is Juror #3, portrayed by Tim McGinley as a man whose own personal history with his estranged son is a major factor in his convictions. McGinley shows both the subtle beginnings and gradually building rage of this character.

Dick Fawcett’s Juror #10 has a less personal reason for his guilty vote: blatant prejudice against “those people,” a prejudice that reveals its venom gradually, but builds to a point at which every other juror is utterly repulsed by it. Fawcett, the gentlest of men in real life, makes us see the poison of hatred that infects this man like a deadly disease.

David Hazen delivers a poignant portrait of Juror #11, an immigrant who came to these shores as a refugee from tyranny and oppression in his native land, and appreciates the rights and duties of his naturalized citizenship better than the other, native-born Americans on the jury. Hazen will touch your heart with his heart-felt performance, and make you remember your own family’s immigrant heritage with pride.

Gary Barringer offers an equally powerful performance as Juror #9, the eldest juror who empathizes with the elderly witness, and the reasons for that never-seen character’s questionable memories of what he saw and heard on the night of the murder. Barringer’s quiet dignity will make you appreciate every older person in your life.

Dan Haueter is brilliant as the perpetually impatient and frenetic Juror #7, who has other priorities in his life than justice for the accused. His confrontation with Hazen’s character is one of the evening’s highlights.

Matthew White is excellent as Juror #4, the quintessential business executive. White gradually brings the character out of his conformist shell as another juror notices one of #4’s physical characteristics, which raises questions about an unseen female witness’ testimony.

Richard Stelts is memorable as Juror #5, whose own background growing up in the slums of the city offers some unexpected expertise about the proper use of the murder weapon, a switchblade. Stelts builds the character gradually, as he overcomes an inferiority complex related to his background, and finds his voice to air his opinion.

Mark Kholos is equally impressive as Juror #6, whose tieless bowling shirt proclaims his working class roots. Kholos shows the character’s growing confidence as he is moved to speak his mind in the presence of other jurors, most of whom are better educated or have better jobs than he.

Dave Wack is a study in intelligence and maturity as Juror #1, the foreman, who spends most of his time putting out the other jurors’ emotional fires and side-issues, and drawing everybody back to the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Tim Gottschling offers a well-thought-out portrait of the very insecure Juror #2, who attempts to ingratiate himself to the others with offers of chewing gum and cough drops, a sign of his own discomfort in the close surroundings of the jury room.

Frank Martin does a fine job as Juror #12, whose “never sweats” coolness in the stifling summer heat of the un-air-conditioned jury room masks his own insecurities.

Jacob Nash does a fine job in the very underwritten role of the guard, speaking his few lines with conviction and authority touched with compassion for the jurors’ thankless task.

Real-life Judge Mark Frost is strong yet subtle as the off-stage voice of the trial judge whose charge to the jury sets the tone for their deliberations.

In addition to an excellent cast and solid directing, this production also features some excellent, original incidental music by Gary Kekel. The cool jazz sound of the score is evocative of the kind of music that accompanied many of the iconic movies and television shows of the 1950’s. I would have preferred more of Kekel’s original work to the medley of ’50’s TV themes that made up the bulk of pre-show and intermission music.

“Twelve Angry Men” offers an excellent opportunity for audiences of all ages to see 14 actors at the top of their game deal with issues of justice, prejudice, perception and reality in a highly entertaining, emotionally charged setting.

While the subject matter is serious, there is nothing to keep younger audiences away. In fact, the play might offer parents an opportunity to open a conversation with their children about such issues as prejudice, bullying and standing up for one’s convictions.

“Twelve Angry Men” will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Call ahead for reservations at 330-332-9688. I give this production my highest recommendation for all audience members. This play and this cast deserve a full house for every performance.

– Guest reviewer Charles Calabrese, a resident of Wintersville, Ohio, has been writing performing arts reviews for print and broadcast for more than 35 years.