When the Mad Cow Theatre planned its 2011-12 theater season, the name Trayvon Martin was not yet a household name. But now as the nation watches the real-life developments in the Martin case, Mad Cow presents a fictionalized courtroom drama in Reginald Rose's classic "Twelve Angry Men."
In "Twelve Angry Men," a teenager is accused of fatally stabbing his father — nothing like the Travyvon case, in which a Sanford man is accused of murdering a teenager.
But the two share one important thing: An overtone of racial bias. That's what keeps America tracking developments in the Trayvon case. And that's what keeps Rose's drama engrossing, even when Mad Cow's fine production briefly loses focus or gets too loud.
Rose first wrote the story for a 1954 telecast, and some customs of that era now seem quaint — men wearing suits to jury duty — or even laughable in our security-conscious age — one of the jurors brings a knife into the deliberation room.
But the meat of the story is timeless: one man (T. Robert Pigott) is the only juror who thinks the defendant might not be guilty. It's never stated exactly what race the defendant is — but there are comments about living in "slums," references to "those sort of people" and other clues that the accused does not share the privileged lives of the white men deciding his fate.
Director Stephan Jones builds energy by keeping his jurors in motion, up from their seats, in and out of a washroom, gazing out a window, though sometimes the background motion of the secondary jurors detracts from the main action.
The title does refer to angry men, so there is more than a little yelling. The solid actors playing the three loudest jurors, Philip Nolen, Josh Geohagan and Joe Reed, all have their moments but often seem as though their anger is erupting at the exact same pitch.
Nolen fills the play's climactic moments with beautiful anguish, and Reed's face is a twisted portrait of ugliness as the depths of his character's bigotry is revealed.
But many of the quieter jurors prove you don't need volume to evoke emotion. Jesse Huffman as a thoughtful house painter, Terry Olson as a quietly dignified man of advancing years, Roger Scott as a polite immigrant. These men all do their part to make us care about the proceedings.
John Bateman has a nice turn as a young man who grew up in the slums and put it behind him until his fellow jurors' bias provokes him to find his voice. And Pigott, as the first juror to vote 'not guilty,' projects an endearing air of gentle uncertainty that makes him a hopeful everyman rather than a preachy do-gooder.
When Reed's bigoted juror seethes with disgust at "these people," it hits home. With all the rhetoric flying over America's elite 1 percent vs. the other 99 percent, a parallel with the play is striking. No matter our color or creed, we are all "these people," sneered at and judged by a group of privileged men holding our future in their hands.
That's the power of Rose's play, as Mad Cow ably displays.
'Twelve Angry Men'
• What: Mad Cow Theatre production of the Reginald Rose drama
• Length: 2 hours, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays and Wednesday, Aug. 22; 3 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 25
• Tickets: $29; $27 students and seniors; pay what you wish on Aug. 22
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: madcowtheatre.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun