It seems like an open-and-shut case of murder — that is, until you get into the jury room. The New York State Theatre Institute’s latest production, “Twelve Angry Jurors,” which opens Sunday, gives audiences a look into the minds and hearts of a 1950s jury and how they arrive at their verdict.
The play has its origins on the screen, originally authored as a teleplay by Reginald Rose in 1954 for the CBS network’s Studio One. Inspired by his own service on a jury for a manslaughter case during which a heated, eight-hour argument began over the guilt or innocence of the defendant, Rose crafted the story of what happens behind closed doors when 12 citizens are thrown together to decide another’s fate. The work became a feature film in 1957.
“When I first read the play last year, initially, I thought it was about the court case,” said Colonie resident David Bunce, a 26-year member of NYSTI who plays the role of Juror No. 8, a part made famous by Henry Fonda in the Hollywood version of the story, “Twelve Angry Men.” What he learned is that the story is largely about the jurors, how they interact and what they learn about themselves.
’Twelve Angry Jurors’
WHERE: New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College, off Route 2, Troy
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturdays, Oct. 4 and 11; 2 p.m. Sundays Oct. 5 and 12; 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10; 10 a.m. weekdays, today, Oct. 7 to 10, 14 to 15.
HOW MUCH: $20 for adults, $16 for seniors and students; $10, child to age 12.
MORE INFO: 274-3256. Or visit www.nysti.org
While there are only male jurors in the movie, which would have been anachronistic for the time, the play includes four women jurors, played by Anny De Gange, Christy Lee Hughes, Carole Edie Smith and Mary Jane Hansen. This is a more true-to-life jury make-up, as women have been eligible to serve as jurors in New York state since May 24, 1937.
The play is set on a hot summer day in 1957 in the jury room after the jurors have just heard the case of a teenager with a prior record who is accused of stabbing his father to death. While 11 of the jurors have already made up their minds and are ready to return a verdict immediately so they can go home, Juror No. 8 insists on talking over the case. Especially provoked by this is Juror No. 3, played by Joel Aroeste, who is in his 33rd season as a teacher-actor with NYSTI.
“I’m probably the angriest guy; it’s exhausting,” Aroeste said. “It’s grueling in its intensity for me. It’s just an intense situation, and the character that I’m playing is particularly vitriolic.”
One of the greatest challenges for the actors as well as veterans NYSTI director Ron Holgate is that all of the characters are on stage for the entire two-act play.
Elements of racism and prejudice enter into the discussion, as does the fact that these 12 people from varying walks of life have to learn how to work together.
“There is a tremendous amount of conflict to try to work out within it, and that makes for just an exciting piece of theater,” Bunce said. In the midst of it all is Bunce, who gets to play the voice of reason.
Through the discussions and heated arguments, the audience gets a taste of what jury deliberation can be like. Bunce points out that the jury system is for the most part an amateur process, and this will be evident in the play.
For Aroeste, the play raises questions. “The audience is left to make their own decisions about our judicial process and the fairness of it,” he said.