Review: 12 Angry Women

Fiercer by the Dozen

Review | by Sean McQuaid

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Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men started life as a 1954 TV special. It’s been reworked in a host of stage and screen incarnations since then, but TV’s where your couch-bound critic first encountered it as well, in airings of the 1957 big-screen version adapted and co-produced by Rose himself with director Sidney Lumet and producer/star Henry Fonda.

It’s enduringly potent drama in any medium, watching a jury of 12 very different people thrown together under pressure as they debate the fate of an accused murderer. Most of the jurors are assuming an open-and-shut guilty verdict, but a lone dissenter (Fonda in the film) sees things differently and fights to sway the others.

The emotional punch of that premise can be further amplified in stage adaptations, such as the gender-flipped Twelve Angry Women version penned by Sherman L. Sergel in 1983 and revived recently in several PEI venues by ACT, directed and produced by ACT mainstays Terry Pratt and Richard Haines, respectively.

Despite its laudably ambitious multi-week, multi-venue, multi-town format, I almost missed out on Twelve Angry Women due to various complications, ultimately catching its final show at the historic Kings Playhouse – and I’m glad I made the drive to scenic Georgetown for it. Pratt and company have crafted a worthy, memorably distinctive version of Rose’s evergreen drama.

As its title implies, the Sergel script has an all-female cast – a rarity in theatre, especially with a cast this big – and given the show’s origins, it’s also a play where the female roles could easily have been (and originally were) written for males, without any conscious or unconscious gendered preconceptions about parts being created for women. In these regards, it’s a fairly unique opportunity for cast and audience alike.

As an audience, it means we get to see a dozen visually and expressively diverse female performers playing twelve distinct parts, a veritable acting buffet, and pretty much every ingredient in Pratt’s uniformly solid cast works (apart from some strangely faint voice-over work at the top of the play).

Standouts among the actors playing the largely nameless jurors include the birdlike nervous energy of Justeann Hansen, the polished poise of Barbara Rhodenizer, the compellingly understated dignity of Nancy MacNevin, the palpably sour hostility of Margaret Brady, the movingly visceral emotion of Kate Martin, and the broadly mannered yet oft-hilarious comic stylings of Robyn MacDougald, plus fine work from Marla Haines, Pamela Rowe, Jennifer Shields and Tamara Steele.

The jurors most fiercely for and against acquittal are played by Catherine MacDonald (the Fonda equivalent) and Laura Stapleton, respectively. MacDonald feels a bit stiff in the early minutes – though one could interpret this as Juror #8’s initially tentative willingness to go against the majority – but she’s a convincingly passionate, intelligent advocate as the play unfolds. Stapleton is strong from start to finish as her nemesis Juror #3, sustaining a seething animosity that really helps the story live up to its name.

Pratt’s production is staged in the round (using the Kings Playhouse’s adjoining hall rather than its core theatrical space), a smart choice that ratchets up both the play’s claustrophobic tension and its you-are-there immediacy, aided by Pratt’s lively blocking and the unwavering focus of his stars. An intermission undermines the production’s confined, oppressive energy somewhat, especially coming as it does amidst one of the show’s stormiest confrontations – though it’s arguably oddly fitting for a TV-spawned tale to have a commercial break of sorts built in.

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Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.