Among the jurors in Surrey Little Theatre's Twelve Angry Men: Tim Driscoll, Aaron Elliott and Pat McDermott (centre).

Challenging drama explores the value of dissent

Twelve Angry Men, about conflict among jurors for a murder trial, reaches Surrey Little Theatre stage in its original 1950s form

Reginald Rose’s emotionally charged drama Twelve Angry Men may have originated as an early 1950s television play and become crystallized in its 1957 film version, starring Henry Fonda.

But there’s good reason that it has been frequently revived and updated – both on stage and film – around the world. It has enduring relevance because it is – at one and the same time – both a cautionary tale about the inherent flaws of justice systems, and a parable about the value of dissent in a democratic society.

Even though it returns the drama to its original context of mid-1950s New York, South Surrey director Lance Peverley’s version – running Jan. 26 to Feb. 25 at the intimate space of Surrey Little Theatre (7027 184 St.) – shouldn’t be taken simply as a period piece.

Even though, as in the original teleplay and film, all the jurors are men – and white men, at that – the play reveals that while modes of expression and style of dress may have changed over the intervening six decades, some underlying attitudes haven’t. There are truths in Rose’s observations that transcend setting, race, gender and culture.

Long before the current political era, Twelve Angry Men suggested that the process of democracy – in this case, the attempt of a jury to reach a unanimous decision on the guilt of an accused murderer – can easily become ugly and divisive. And the face of bigotry, it implies, can be found not only in the familiar physiognomy of a dictator, but also in the smile of the ‘guy next door.’

At the outset of the jury’s deliberations, the final verdict seems clear to all – except one man, obstinate juror number eight  (played by Chris Carver), who persistently casts a dissenting vote, arguing, to the frustration of many of the others who would like the trial to be over and done with, that there is reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused.

For this timely production, Peverley has assembled a strong cast of players, including many well-known to audiences from local and regional community-theatre shows.

As the 11 other jurors, Pat McDermott, Conor Brand, Ken Cross, Harry Pering, David Carroll, Andrew Wood, Scott A. McGillivray, Brent Cross, Tim Driscoll, Simon Challenger and Aaron Elliott portray a cross-section of personalities and socio-economic levels in the jury room, ranging from a stockbroker to a house painter; from a loud-mouthed garage owner to a meek bank clerk. 

Peverley – also editor of the Peace Arch News, and director of his own films, as well as a former assistant director on many major B.C.-lensed movies – said he believes the play is challenging the players to do some of their best and most thoughtful work.

While he likes to see well-defined characters, he said he doesn’t want to mimic more cut-and-dried interpretations. A lot of the strength of the play, he said, is in its ambiguities and unexpected revelations of character, and he’d be happy if the audience’s own perceptions and sympathies are challenged, just as one man challenges the assumptions of the other jurors.

“I’ve seen interpretations of it that are a little more black-and-white,” he said. “I’m trying to show the grey.

“When you hear what each of the jurors are saying, you can see how a trial-by-committee could easily go sideways.

“(This is) an argument for finding the truth through asking questions.”

Peverley, who first discovered the play as a teenager, in the 1957 film version, said he marvels at a more-than-60-year-old property discussing issues that are still trendy in 2017.

“There are comments made by some of the characters that (could be) some of the things said and heard during the U.S. election,” he said.

“By taking 12 characters – ‘some people call them types,’ Peverley said – Rose is creating a relatable milieu, however uncomfortable that may be, ultimately, to the introspective viewer.

“In each one of these characters I see elements of myself – and they’re not always complimentary elements,” he said.

“I can look at them and say, ‘that could have been me.’ I could have been the ‘yes-man’, the sycophant. I could have been the bully somewhere in my life. I could have been the person who wanted to be somewhere else.”

Just as the challenges of staging the play in the narrow confines of the Surrey Little Theatre may not allow the audience – themselves cast as virtual eavesdroppers – to immediately pick out all the characters involved in the discussion, it will also be difficult to pick out a hero or a bad guy from among them, Peverley said.

“The ‘hero’ isn’t a hero – he says things that upset people, he’s got an edge to him. And the people most often presented as bad guys aren’t coming at it as bad people. Their objections are to some extent justified, but their decision-making is flawed.

“We could walk into any crowd and have such discussions – are we listening to what we’re saying to each other?”

Although the premise of the play seems to underline the ‘angry’ of the title, it’s not a uniformly grim piece, Peverley said.

There is also humour in the interaction of the men, and Peverley has chosen actors well-known for comedy capabilities to leaven the heavier drama.

“There are a lot of laughs in the play if we do it right,” he said.

“But in the same way as any really good comedy does, I’d like to leave people with some life lessons as well.”

Twelve Angry Men is presented in 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Tickets ($17) are available from brownpapertickets.com, reservations@surreylittletheatre.com or by calling 604-576-8451.