Twelve guys sit around in a room discussing the fate of another. It’s such a simple story, but it’s been on of the most hugely influential dramas of the mid-20th century. I find it interesting that 12 Angry Men started out as a teleplay in 1954. (It was part of an anthology series on CBS called Studio One.) The next year it was adapted for the stage. A couple of years after that it was adapted into the 1957 film it’s best known as. 12 people in a single room would have been cheap and easy to stage for a small TV production in the early 1950s.
The drama which radiated out of an old black and white Zenith or RCA would have given deeper matters of life and death some strange ghostly weight in an living rooms all over the country. There’s a certain weight about that movie that still works in a living room or..even on an iPhone screen, but the classic 1950s jury drama 12 Angry Men has a tightness and concision about it that works the best on the small stage. Cream City Theater takes a trip to the ’50s with a staging of the drama in a nice, little out-of-the-way space in a semi-residential stretch of West Allis.
It’s a studio theatre space so small you can almost hear every individual clap. There’s a long table with everyone sitting facing the audience. Sit down in the front row and soon the actors are all sitting there as well. The fact that it’s all guys (12 of ‘em) sitting at a very long table facing the audience makes the framing of the drama feel A LOT like da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The twelve of them are there to decide the fate of someone accused of killing his own father.
Directed by Katherine Beeson, the cast sinks into the jury as they discuss particulars of a murder. A calmly towering Nicholas Callan Haubner plays the protagonist: an architect who is the sole juror not certain of the defendant’s guilt at the beginning of the play. Haubner delivers the protagonist’s soft-spoken confidence with steady, mild-mannered confidence. It’s an interesting execution. As I recall there was real passion and emotion...even an occasional twinkle of wisdom in the eye of Henry Fonda in the original film adaptation. Haubner isn’t quite so flashy, but he’s far from soulless in the role. Quite the opposite in fact. He seems to contrast against that with a cool inner peace that pairs well against the more aggressive natures of some of the other characters.
Doug Smedbron puts in a notably compassionate performance as Juror #9--the wise, old man who is the first to seriously consider the protagonist’s perspective. There are a couple of moments in Smedbron’s oration here that feel nearly moving. Very deep stuff about the loneliness of old age and such. Smedbron delivers it to the stage quite well in places.
There are a couple of notable performances by some of the last jurors to reach the consensus. Gene Schuldt has a powerful physical presence onstage as the pushy, aggressive Juror #10. Mack Heath puts in a similarly aggressive performance as the last juror to reach consensus.
While moments are attained by Haubner, Smedbron, Schuldt and nearly everyone else in the cast, the overall rhythm of a piece like this is pretty illusive. Twelve Angry Men is an extended debate between twelve guys. This is not an easy thing to stage while consistently hitting all the high points, maintaining momentum AND allowing one moment to flow seamlessly from the next. Nowhere is this disjointed energy more prominent than in the break for intermission. One of the most physically aggressive outbursts of combusts onstage and the lights fall. We come back from intermission and the actors all have to pick up right where they left off. It’s awkward. Granted, the original TV version of the play would have had the occasional break for Westinghouse commercials, but a sudden break at that specific moment knocks some of the energy out of the build-up. The energy can feel a bit disjointed in places, but this sort of 12-person-in-one-room drama is attempted so rarely that it’s fascinating to watch even when everything isn’t connecting perfectly onstage.
Cream City Theater’s production of Twelve Angry Men runs through Oct. 29 at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cream City Theater online.