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theatre review

Twelve Angry Men challenges the audience to see beyond stereotypes.Cylla von Tiedemann/The Globe and Mail

I like to refer to Twelve Angry Men, with the utmost affection, as Twelve Angry Stereotypes.

Reginald Rose's durable jury-room drama, receiving a gripping revival from Soulpepper Theatre, lays out a buffet of juicy male character types, circa the 1950s. Here we have such classic specimens as the timid bank clerk, the wisecracking sports nut, the shrewd stockbroker, the polite immigrant, the blustering bigot. Heck, there's even a glib ad executive who could be pitching slogans with the younger version of Mad Men's Don Draper.

We meet this delectable dozen in a sweltering hot New York courthouse at the end of a gruelling three-day murder trial, with 11 of them prepared to convict a suspect that they've pegged as another stereotype – the violent hoodlum from an ethnic slum.

Of course, Rose's play – originally a 1954 television drama, then an Oscar-nominated 1957 film – is also about seeing beyond stereotypes. The only holdout preventing a guilty verdict is calm, thoughtful Juror No. 8, who is reluctant to send a 16-year-old kid to the electric chair without talking a little first. And as he airs his reasonable doubts, poking holes in the seemingly air-tight evidence as effectively as if he were using the murder weapon, a switchblade knife, he forces his fellow jurors to reconsider and confront the prejudices that have influenced their decision.

The mechanics of the play are obvious even if you haven't seen it before – and lord knows it's had its share of homages and parodies, from Nikita Mikhalkov's film 12 to an episode of Family Guy. But watching its plot smoothly click into place is as pleasurable as savouring Rose's lovingly tended clichés. Besides, its inherent truths still pack a wallop, as Soulpepper's new production happily reminds us.

Granted, Alan Dilworth's slow-burn staging begins in such a low key that at first I felt a twinge of dread. As his men assemble at a long wooden table in a nondescript jury room, their tone is as damped-down as their slick Fifties haircuts. But wait for it. Dilworth has directed a canny treatment in which the performances build as patiently and methodically as Juror 8's arguments.

At the same time, his actors challenge some of our own preconceptions about how their characters should be played. Stuart Hughes is cast as the enigmatic Juror 8, a role given a saintly aura by Henry Fonda in Sidney Lumet's film, but played by the sturdy Hughes with more grit and fire. When another juror refers to him snarkily as Clarence Darrow, it now seems apt – Hughes endows the man with some of that legendary lawyer's charismatic zeal.

Similarly, Cyrus Lane plays down the comic side of Juror 7, the baseball fan itching to wrap things up so he can get to a Yankees game. Instead, he gives the character's smart-aleck routine a sour edge. Conversely, Michael Simpson brings his open-faced charm to the otherwise easily forgettable Juror 6, a down-to-earth house painter.

Dilworth has done an especially good job of delineating the jury-room dynamics, in which a handful of loudmouths (Lane, William Webster's Juror 10, Joseph Ziegler's Juror 3) dominate and attempt to bully the others. Rational argument begins to take hold only after the minorities and the marginalized get to have a say. They include Jordan Pettle's gracious European watchmaker, well-versed in the workings of U.S. democracy; Byron Abalos as a former slum-dweller whose knowledge of switchblades proves crucial; and Robert Nasmith, poignant as the feeble elderly juror with keen powers of observation who won't be easily dismissed.

There are surprises, too. As familiar as I am with the play, I got an unexpected chill when Webster's blunt, Bronx-accented bigot launched into his racist rant. His fear and loathing of "those people" (unidentified in the script, but presumably Puerto Rican immigrants) sounds eerily like the rhetoric used today against Muslims or the Roma, but boiled down to its ugly basics. If Rose were writing his play now, Juror 10 might not be a garage owner, but a Sun News commentator.

Finally, however, the show belongs to Ziegler as Juror 8's main antagonist, the heartbroken father whose anger at his estranged son has blinded his judgment. The role isn't exactly an exemplar of subtle psychology, but Ziegler plays it with such fervent conviction that he's riveting. When at last he's left silent and shattered by self-realization, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre.

Dilworth, who directed Soulpepper's set-in-Toronto update of La Ronde a season ago, embraces the period setting this time out. Yannik Larivée's set – using an intimate traverse stage in the Young Centre's Michael Young Theatre – is as grey and business-like as his Eisenhower-era costumes. The only colourful theatrical flourish comes in Act 2, when the heat wave breaks and rain pours down like a curtain at the periphery of the stage. That, and when Richard Feren's cheeky transitional music swells up in portentous strains that recall classic television scores of the era. (The Dragnet theme comes to mind.)

There are times when you miss some of the bolder characterizations in the Lumet movie. But if Soulpepper's Twelve Angry Men isn't always the acting feast it could be, it's still a substantial meal. And it provides strong evidence that, regardless of its stereotypes, Rose's play still deserves to be taken seriously.

Twelve Angry Men runs until July 19.