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Adaptation of 12 Angry Men touches modern themes

Many people would prefer to avoid jury duty, but even the most politically negligent cannot avoid this civic responsibility that is central to our legal system. With a jury composed of peers, ordinary citizens are the arbiters of justice, and the effectiveness of democracy rests in their taking the trouble to engage in their duty to listen, discuss and decide on guilt or innocence.

While political analysts despair over public apathy, there remains a hope of life mimicking art as in a new production by the Lakeshore Players.

In 12 angry jurors, written by Reginald Rose in 1954 and adapted for the stage by Sherman Sergel, a group of strangers cast off their lassitude to assume their juridical responsibility.

The jurors are summoned to pass judgment on a young Puerto Rican man accused of his father’s murder. When nearly all of them quickly resolve to condemn the boy to death, a lone dissenter votes “not guilty”, obliging the others to discuss the matter further to reach a conclusive verdict. His forcing them not to act for the sake of expediency or bias results in their gradual awakening to the responsibility conferred on them and an examination of the prejudices that would have allowed them to commit a grave injustice.

The play, which has been produced both as a teleplay and as a film, is directed by retired John Abbott theatre professor Murray Napier. This is his second production with Lakeshore, the first being David French’s Silver Dagger from the 2007-2008 season.

Napier says he is impressed with the organization of the Lakeshore Players and the dedication of their volunteers and actors. “I proposed this play because I was struck by their talent,” Napier says, adding that the play “is a showcase for talent. It’s a terrific cast.”

This is Napier’s third time directing 12 angry jurors. The previous productions were at John Abbott. “These actors are the right age,” Napier adds jokingly. “I don’t have to encourage them to be more mature in their portrayals.”

Rose’s teleplay was originally called 12 angry men and later changed to 12 angry jurors.

“I’ve always done it with mixed casts,” Napier says. “It’s interesting to see how the female actors have made the play their own.”

“In theatre departments, you often have to turn men into women,” he adds. While the title of the play might have become more gender-neutral over the decades, the emotion that typifies the characters remains unchanged.

“Anger is the central energy in the play,” Napier says. “There’s the anger of someone who will fight for justice, whose battle is aimed at getting to the truth, and there’s the personal anger of the jurors getting in the way of justice. In the beginning, the anger is directed at this one relentless juror. Then, as they start to ferret out the truth, the anger changes direction.”

Despite the near unjust conviction at the beginning of the play as a result of the jurors’ prejudices, Napier asserts that his play is very supportive of the justice system: It only requires that the role of the individual to ensure justice be taken seriously. “The system is susceptible to mistakes,” Napier admits, “but that comes with a democracy. Democracy is vulnerable, but also a defense against tyranny. You look at recent injustices – Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo – and you realize how that system needs to be preserved. Especially in a time of war, you don’t throw away the values you’re committed to. True values persist,” Napier insists. “The jurors’ hearts are in the right place. It’s exciting to see whether or not they’ll do the right thing.”

According to Napier, the jurors undergo a catharsis, a self-realization only encountered through the renewed pursuit of justice. “You’re moved by the way they deal with the conflict,” Napier says. “What you enjoy is to see that good will survive the onslaught of obstacles, to watch justice and understanding triumph.”

“This play gives a hopeful message,” Napier says. “It gives the audience a sense of the good side of what America wants to be.”

12 angry jurors runs at John Rennie Theatre, 501 St. Jean, Pointe Claire, from November 5-7 and 11-14. To reserve, call 514-631-8718.

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