Cream City's '12 Angry men' a powerful drama

Jurors 9 and 11 (Doug Smedbron and Erico Ortiz), from left, watch as Jurors 5 and 4 (Zach Sharrock and Pau Weir) re-enact a murder in a scene from Cream City Theater's '12 Angry Men.' 

Jurors 9 and 11 (Doug Smedbron and Erico Ortiz), from left, watch as Jurors 5 and 4 (Zach Sharrock and Pau Weir) re-enact a murder in a scene from Cream City Theater's '12 Angry Men.' 

By Marilyn Jozwik

Published Oct. 24, 2017

Katherine Beeson, who directs Cream City Theater’s “12 Angry Men,” calls her cast “an embarrassment of riches.”

After seeing the show Saturday night, I’d have to say that’s an accurate assessment. She has assembled an outstanding ensemble, composed entirely of men. It’s not an easy task to find that many outstanding male performers locally.

The play is a clever twist on our system of justice. Instead of the story’s playing out in a courtroom, all the action is in the jury room. It is summer and it is hot. So hot that several characters complain about their discomfort and use it as an excuse when tempers flare. Perhaps the sticky situation could have been displayed with more forehead dabbing or use of notepads for fans.

The play, based on a 1950s teleplay by Reginald Rose, should be required viewing for any juror. Unfortunately, every jury doesn’t have a member as thoughtful and thorough as Juror No. 8 (Nicholas Callan Haubner). The jurors are only identified by number.

At the start of the play, Juror No. 8 alone thinks a 19-year-old defendant is not guilty of the stabbing death of his father. The verdict must be unanimous and it seems the easiest way to end the trial is to convince that one juror the boy is guilty. The teen seems to have all the cards stacked against him. In sworn testimony several witnesses have given damning evidence.

The early scenes show somewhat of a mob mentality, a sort of “Crucify him” cry from virtually all the jurors. They are sometimes explosive in their rants against the kid and “his kind” as we see bigotries revealed.

But by invoking the mantra of “reasonable doubt” Juror No. 8 dissects all the testimony and begins to find holes. His persistence keeps the jurors discussing the trial and, in the heat of the moment, they reveal information about themselves that shows their prejudices. Others come to understand that the courtroom testimonies are not ironclad, and that some jurors who voted guilty did so out of prejudice. Guilty votes begin to change to not guilty – but then, sometimes back to guilty. Can this group of 12 reach a unanimous verdict?

Juror No. 8’s most ardent opponent is Juror No. 3 (Mack Heath), who belittles and bullies the others. He goes toe-to-toe with Juror No. 8 on several occasions that might end in violence. Two others seem just as passionate about the kid’s guilt, Juror No. 4 (Paul Weir) and Juror No. 10 (Gene Schuldt). The three sit in the center of the table, with the action swirling around them.

Under Beeson’s direction, this fine cast presents a faithful version of the powerful play. The actors who play the strong personalities in the jury room are riveting in their performances. But what elevates the show is how well each of the dozen jurors has carved out a niche, a distinctive characterization, and how real they all seem. Audience members can relate, see themselves in that room asking the same questions, having doubts one moment and confidence in their decision the next. Each juror begins to analyze how his own background and experiences affect his judgement.

Haubner is like a captain sailing his ship through stormy seas. His hand is firmly on the helm, always steady and objective in the face of emotion. He reveals virtually nothing about himself, simply reinforcing his passion to not send an innocent man to death.

While Haubner’s No. 8 is calm and even-tempered, Heath’s Juror No. 3 is prone to explosive anger. Some of the play’s finest moments involve the two, particularly when scenarios related to the killing are re-enacted. Heath has a wide range of snarls and glances, gestures and voice intonations that masterfully interpret the dialogue. You can’t take your eyes off him.

As Juror No. 4, Paul Weir is Heath’s rational, even-tempered alter ego. He believes a guilty verdict is in order because of the facts, at one point telling the others, “Emotion won’t do.” Weir has a professorial presence and pairs well with Heath, articulating in less emotional terms while Heath spouts off.

Schuldt as Juror No. 10 really nails his character and meshes well with Weir’s No. 4 and Heath’s No. 3. One of the key moments sees Weir and Schuldt clashing after the latter’s outburst reveals his bias. With controlled anger Weir tells him, “If you open your mouth again I’m going to split your skull.”

Doug Smedbron as Juror No. 9 contributes only a handful of thoughts, but they are very powerful and open the other jurors’ eyes to yet another point of view.

Foreman of the jury Al Van Lith does a good job as the peacekeeper trying to keep the powder keg from exploding, while Bill Hitt as Juror No. 12 has a good look and demeanor for his character, an ad man.

Erico Ortiz is also convincing as Juror No. 11, who, as an immigrant to the U.S., is happy to have “the right to disagree.”

As Juror No. 5, Zach Sharrock, the youngest of the jurors, displays some tricky handling of a switchblade in his scenes. Rounding out the cast are David Cooklock (Juror No. 2), Greg Ryan (Juror No. 6), Tom Jozwik (Juror No. 7) and Ken Meleski (Guard/Bailiff).

This cast does a wonderful job of creating an ebb and flow of tension that keeps an audience fully engaged and unsure of the outcome until the very end.

If you go:

Who: Cream City Theater

What: “12 Angry Men”

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27 and 28; 2 p.m. Oct. 29

Where: Inspiration Studios, 1500 S. 73rd St., West Allis