IRT opens ‘Angry’

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a hot summer night, and what will happen in this room will have life and death consequences for someone you’ve never met.

Welcome to “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic American drama by Reginald Rose opening the 2019-2020 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in 1957, this play is both very much of its time, and timeless. The struggles and society these dozen characters deal with are every bit as real today as they were then.

Our 12-man jury is tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder. If the verdict is guilty, the death penalty will be applied. The men are all from different backgrounds, working class to rich. Though all white, they have roots in different ethnicities. 

The jury foreman (Seth Andrew Bridges) calls for a preliminary vote. Since the result seemed so obvious during the trial, all vote “Guilty” — except for one (Chris Amos). Why? He doesn’t want a rush to judgement, he says, and besides, he has some questions.

For the next hour-plus (the play is a single movie-length act) we hear the details of the case, presenting the murder mystery in nearly enough detail to give the audience a vote. 

The men arguing are all sharply acted, under the direction of James Still, giving dimension to their archetypes: Scott Greenwell as mousey, yet wanting to see justice done; Craig Spidle as one easily convinced of the evil “kids these days” can do; Henry Woronicz as a rich broker who wants to see the facts as plain and ordered as the newspaper he reads; Demetrios Troy as a man with more in common with the defendant than he’d like to admit; Casey Hoekstra as a laborer whose work ethic informs his judgement; Michael Stewart Allen as a loud Yankees fan (he wants the deliberations done in time to go to a game) who sounds more certain than he actually is; Mark Goetzinger as an older gentleman struggling to bring perspective to the proceedings; Robert Jerardi as a bigot determined to see “one of them” condemned; Patrick Clear as an immigrant excited to exercise his new citizenship; Charles Goad as an ad man who can’t help playing both sides; Bridges’ foreman, whose skills as a high school coach come into play; and Amos’ holdout, the conscience of the play and principal driver of the “reasonable doubt” that can turn the verdict around. Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard stationed outside the jury room door. 

Most people know, or can easily guess, the outcome of this drama. What is important, and makes this engrossingly entertaining, is how they get there. The knife, the steps, the glasses, all the clues and what they suggest, making for an intense 100 minutes. And the title is apt: these men get plenty angry — including at each other.

The stage set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a masterwork, including a washroom to the side that can be made to be seen through screens when needed, as some juror discussions take place privately. The custom-made long wooden jurors’ table sits upon a turntable that slowly moves at times to aid our perspective of the deliberations. And at moments an actor might step away from the churning motion to demonstrate his seeking clarity. 

While the idea seemed gimmicky, the turning table is not constant, and thus works to great effect. Still notes this aspect of the stage was discussed early on in the production. “You mostly just have 12 men sitting around a table,” he said. “We needed something dynamic.”

The deliberations continue through Sept. 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, by Circle Centre. Info and tickets at http://www.irtlive.com.

An important ‘Dinner’ date at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents a beautiful production of the comic drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” by Todd Kreidler, based on the 1967 film’s screenplay by William Rose. And by “beautiful,” I also mean the set looks like a home you’d want to move into, with its free-standing fireplace, warm colors and comfortable yet stylish furniture. But the cast are not upstaged by these props; the actors deliver brilliant performances as IRT audiences have come to expect.

Annie Munch plays Joanna Drayton, the idealistic and optimistic daughter of a politically liberal newspaper publisher and his wife (Craig Spidle and Brigitt Markusfeld). She comes home unexpectedly, bringing her fiancé, accomplished physician Dr. John Prentice (Chike Johnson). But the bigger surprise, especially as it’s 1967 America, is that while the Draytons are white, Prentice is black.

This visit tests the beliefs, ethics, friendships and family ties of all. Mr. Drayton, writer of civil rights editorials, finds himself torn between hypocrisy and honest concern for his daughter.  The black maid Matilda (Lynda Gravatt) is suspicious of this well-dressed, well-spoken man, as she has seen too many con men who look like him. Mrs. Drayton is concerned not only about her feelings, but also those of her society-conscious friend Hilary (Constance Macy). Family friend Monsignor Ryan (Mark Goetzinger), practically a gushing fan of Dr. Prentice, provides welcome optimism. And then, there’s the less than happy reaction of Prentice’s parents (Cleavant Derricks and Nora Cole).

As I noted, all performances are excellent, drawing you into their world, which doesn’t seem quite so out-of-date with this era’s continuing arguments about race and equality. No man can fill the film’s star Sidney Poitier’s shoes, so regard Johnson as his own charming interpretation of the young doctor finding an unlikely second chance at love, and enjoy.

The humor inherent in this play puts fresh meaning to the term “situation comedy.” The side-splitting moments appear among the heart-testing ones, as we get both in great measure. The discussions, debates and arguments inspire thought as well as laughter — and at the performance I saw, some spontaneous applause.

I couldn’t help but think that this play could also work with a more updated look, and Joanna bringing home instead the woman she has fallen in love with. But no matter how it’s staged, this story – this test of how we truly feel when issues literally come to our doorstep – is important to see and experience. The play runs through Feb. 4 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., next to Circle Centre; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.