A tense confrontation in Surrey Little Theatre's Twelve Angry Men features (left to right) Chris Carver, Ken Cross, Conor Brand, Andy Wood, Scott McGillivray and Aaron Elliott. Below: faces of Surrey Little Theatre's Twelve Angry Men: (below, left to right, top row) Pat McDermott, Harry Pering, Scott McGillivray, Simon Challenger, (middle row) Conor Brand, David Carroll, Brent Cross, Chris Carver, (bottom row) Ken Cross, Andy Wood, Tim Driscoll and Aaron Elliott.

REVIEW: Twelve Angry Men makes its points with realism

Surrey Little Theatre show, featuring well-known local and regional actors, continues to Feb. 25

It’s possible to stage a version of Twelve Angry Men that hits every point home with a hammer; that paints every character in broad strokes and resorts to the full gamut of histrionics too often relied on to convince an audience that they have seen a great theatrical performance.

But that’s not the road taken by South Surrey director Lance Peverley and his cast, currently reviving Sherman L. Sergel’s stage adaptation of Reginald Rose’s original 1954 teleplay at Surrey Little Theatre (continuing until Feb.25).

It’s no criticism to say that this production – the story of 12 everyday citizens locked in a jury room in a New York courthouse, c. 1955, who must decide  the fate of a young man accused of stabbing his own father to death – soft-pedals the theatrics in just about  every scene, in favour of a much more realistic, cinematic, approach.

Indeed, one of the virtues of this Twelve Angry Men, is that it almost sneaks up on you.

As the 12 jurors file onto the stage from the auditorium, virtually stepping from the ranks of the audience, they indulge in the awkward chatter and territory-defining body language of any group of strangers brought together at random in the same environment.

As staged by Peverley, the show starts as a study in people-watching, aided by the intimate confines of the Surrey Little Theatre space. Almost before you realize it, the play is underway and idle commonplaces have given way to discussion of the case.

It’s to this production’s credit that the expository dialogue seldom feels like theatrical artifice.

Written just when America was emerging from the dark period of McCarthyism, Twelve Angry Men is heavy with the human failings common to all societies – prejudice, closed-minded assumptions of ‘truth,’ wavering moral resolve and widely varying notions of social responsibility.

It’s clear that audience members who saw it on the evening I attended caught every nuance of these issues – and every eerie resemblance to the darkness of the current political climate.

The fireworks inherent in the piece, sparked by a lone juror’s stubborn resistance to a common assumption of guilt, are certainly there. But when the themes emerge – among them, the sobering realization that crucial decisions in our society are often based on emotions rooted in our own issues – the effect is all the stronger for the naturalistic approach taken by Peverley and his talented cast.

The actors – including some familiar faces often seen in more lightweight fare – have been challenged by this script, and each, one feels, has risen to the challenge and taken the chance to shine in some of their strongest dramatic work to date.

Chris Carver offers an impressively seamless performance as Juror No. 8 – the lone voice of dissent at the start of the play. His straightforward, honest playing doesn’t paint the man as a saint, or shy away from his abrasive side, but creates a convincing portrait of a man who is not at all sure his view is right – just that there is reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused and the reliability of the evidence against him.

Scott McGillivray, as Juror No. 3 – utterly convinced the man on trial is guilty – provides the bull-headed force, bullying tone and physicality necessary for the character. But he’s aware that he’s an adversary, not a black-hat villain. The skill of his performance is that he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a man who can also admit he’s wrong. And when he brings to life the inner fragility under the vehemence, he creates moments that are truly touching.

Simon Challenger as Juror No. 4, a Wall Street broker, offers a smooth portrayal of a man used to weighing business decisions and taking command of discussion. It’s a strong performance bringing out an inherent pragmatism and fairness in the man, and his reactions seem genuine and spontaneous, particularly in a scene when the reliability of his own memory is challenged.

Ken Cross, playing the most senior of the jurors, provides a quality of quiet, but proud feistiness, sketching a believably wise and principled man who will not easily be swayed. Similarly, Tim Driscoll provides a strong sense of moral grounding as a Hungarian immigrant all too aware of the dangers of prejudice and fascism. Although his accent occasionally seems to stray over Eastern European borders, Driscoll’s sincerity and natural gravitas as a performer are used to good advantage – particularly in a telling monologue in which he takes a fellow juror to task.

Brent Cross strikes the right note of shallow bonhomie as a man whose dedication to his jury duty responsibilities flags when he realizes the ongoing debate will interfere with attending a baseball game, while Andy Wood also well-suggests a surface affability that doesn’t quite mask deep-rooted prejudices. Although the transition was a little abrupt at the performance I saw, he has a particularly effective scene when his outer shell, and the absolute certainty of his beliefs, are shattered.

Aaron Elliott nicely balances the hail-fellow-well-met attributes of a slick advertising man, adept at spouting stock phrases, with the inner reality of a weak man too easily influenced and prey to paralyzing indecision.

Conor Brand makes a notable debut as a young juror angrily sensitive to assumptions about poverty and slum life, and demonstrates admirable timing and presence, particularly for an actor of his limited experience.

But some of the greatest strength in this production comes from the less flashy roles – the Average Joes who, while inconvenienced by jury duty, just want to do their best.

Pat McDermott, in a break from comedy roles, has well-judged reactions as a man uncomfortable with his responsibility as jury foreman, particularly when he bridles at any suggestion that he could be running the deliberations better. Similarly, David Carroll adds to the realism of the piece with his agreeable depiction of a juror who, while uncertain of what impact his absence from work will have on his job, is still conscientious enough to want to weigh the evidence properly.

But, in many ways, the poster child for this production’s relatable ‘everyman’ quality is Harry Pering.

Playing a meek individual clearly out of his comfort zone with the more forceful people in the room – his confused, stricken face, as he contemplates the severity of the task ahead of them is a lingering image – he still manages to convey a subtle underlying strength of character. And when he scores against one of his antagonists, the audience is with him all the way.

Tom Taylor (Producer Mike Busswood also appears in the double-cast role) is natural as the guard who conducts them into the jury room and brings in a crucial piece of evidence, and I also like Tom Saunders’ measured dignity in his voice cameo delivering the admonition of the trial judge.

This is also a show that proves that time spent on evocative detail is never wasted.

Hillary Brewer’s sound design juxtaposes the action with a witty commentary of tunes well-known in the era, and Busswood and Driscoll’s set, well-decorated by Pat McLean (including the obligatory Eisenhower portrait), achieves just the right feel of shabby, institutional functionalism.

Costumers Sara Lohnes and Margaret Shearman have managed to find period-suggestive clothing for a wide range of body types, while hair and makeup artist Gail Ruginis has also done a good job in maintaining the realism – and the cast’s attention to loosening collars and fanning themselves creates a solid sense that the increasingly heated discussion of the jurors is heightened by the sweltering humidity of a summer evening.

Surrey Little Theatre is located at  7027 184 St. For show information, call 604-576-8451; for tickets, visit www.brownpapertickets.com, or email reservations@surreylittletheatre.com

(Note: Lance Peverley, who is also editor of the Peace Arch News, did not participate in the publication of this review.)