Director Vincent Lancisi begins Everyman Theatre's production of "Voir Dire" with the cast members seated in the audience. Each plays a character who is about to become a juror in a New York City trial. One by one they stand, answering broadcast questions from unseen attorneys.
It's an effective opening, making the theatergoers feel that they, too, are among the potential jurors, or, to put it another way, that we are all peers. Yet the question of whether the accused is truly being judged by a jury of his peers -- or, more broadly, whether a jury of peers is ever possible -- is at the core of this jury-room drama by Joe Sutton.
The play's fictitious case concerns the arrest of "a man of substance," as the accused black New York City high school principal is repeatedly described. The problem is that, in this case, "substance" refers to crack cocaine, which he was caught possessing. His defense is that the evidence was planted by a white cop.
The crime is a misdemeanor, which means that, according to New York state law, it is decided by a six-member jury. In this instance, five of the jurors are women and only one is black.
Almost from the beginning, the jurors argue with one another, instead of arguing the case. Two of them are particularly adversarial. Deborah Hazlett plays a strident feminist with a short fuse. That fuse is easily ignited by the lone male juror, played by Kyle Prue. The intentions of Prue's businessman character appear to be good, but just about everything he says provokes the ire of Hazlett's character, who is convinced the entire case is "a conspiracy called racism."
Her closest ally is the only black juror, a woman who counsels teen-age girls and who is played by soft-spoken Denise Diggs, at least initially, as a calm peacemaker -- possibly the sole voice of reason.
But much as Prue's character would like to believe that "nobody has an ax to grind," it becomes increasingly clear, especially after the hung jury is sequestered, that personal history, preconceptions and vested interests are playing a major role in the deliberations.
The play, which debuted in Seattle in 1995, quickly turns into a debate, possibly an unavoidable problem, given the format. Granted, in the course of the debate, we do learn a great deal about the characters, and in some cases -- most notably Hazlett's -- even see them undergo significant changes.
There are several strong performances. In addition to those mentioned above, Claudia Torres is a revelation as the timid forewoman. Playing a Hispanic mother with a stomach condition, she is largely silent until the next-to-last scene, when she defends her position with a quiet intensity that proves highly moving.
Completing the cast, Barbara Pinolini is credible as a businesswoman far more concerned about her job than the outcome of the trial.
But Melissa Hurt comes across as too callow, even for the wet-behind-the-ears Midwesterner she's depicting.
Several times during the play -- whose title, from the old French for "to speak truly," is the legal term for the jury selection process -- I glanced at my fellow theatergoers and noticed them watching the proceedings with the same rapt attention jurors are supposed to display in the courtroom. While this is one indication of the success of director Lancisi's staging, it doesn't negate the fact that, thanks to all the speechifying, "Voir Dire" winds up being more of a polemic than a play.
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2: 30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 31 Tickets: $12-$15
Pub Date: 1/15/99