by Charles Runnells

Read the Review on The News-Press Website

A teenage boy’s life is at stake, and everybody in the jury room thinks he’s guilty of murder.

Everybody, that is, but one.

And Juror Eight won’t budge — despite the sweltering summer heat, the flaring tempers and the intense pressure of 11 angry men bearing down on him.

“We’re talking about somebody’s LIFE here,” he implores.

You won’t be able to tear your eyes from Florida Rep’s new drama, “Twelve Angry Men.” This story is a classic for a reason, and its messages of justice and social responsibility are just as relevant today as they were in 1957 (although you don’t see many murder trials with all-male juries these days).

Director Charles Morey and his 12 actors create a tense, claustrophobic mood in the grimy, run-down jury room designed by Dennis Maulden. And despite its 2 ½ hour running time, this drama flies by like a dream.

“Twelve Angry Men” is best known as the 1957 Sidney Lumet movie starring Henry Fonda and Ed Begley. But Reginald Rose’s 21st century adaptation smoothly transfers that classic to the stage with spellbinding results.

Morey has assembled an ace cast full of vivid characters and finely shaded acting, including Stephen Hooper’s meek, reed-voiced Juror Two (who helps break the tension with some much-needed humor); Jason Parrish’s exasperated foreman; and Graham Smith’s dignified European watchmaker.

Still, a few of the actors manage to stand out from the general excellence onstage: Craig Bockhorn’s easily riled Juror Three, gung-ho for a murder conviction right from the start; Greg Longenhagen’s antsy Juror Seven, who practically has one foot out the door and can’t wait to get to that night’s Yankees game; and William McNulty’s bullish Juror Ten, seething with hatred and racism that eventually spews out into the entire room.

“I’ve lived among them all my life,” he says about the accused’s never-specified race. “You can’t believe a word they say.”

V. Craig Heidenreich’s Juror Eight stands in the middle of it all, a man haunted by his convictions and getting crushed under the pressure from his fellow jurors. His eyes are full of conflict and torment, but still he presses on, determined that justice somehow prevail. I loved how Heidenreich plays Juror Eight with a deliberate stillness, almost statue-like at times, as if he’s afraid to siphon energy from his mental faculties at such an important time. If only every U.S. juror took the responsibility so seriously.

“Twelve Angry Men” easily could have gotten bogged down in the trial details: The teenage boy’s dead father with a knife jutting from his chest, the downstairs neighbor who heard the boy shout “I’m gonna kill you,” the woman who saw the murder from her apartment across the street (through the windows of a passing elevated train), the supposed rarity of the switch knife used in the murder, etc.

But Morey and his actors spell out everything with crystal clarity and with an assured pace that never lets all that detail collapse under its own weight. In fact, it’s downright fascinating seeing how a jury works during a “real”  murder trial.

Alliances shift back and forth, voices raise in anger, fists fly and justice is hammered out around a long table on one hot summer day.

The outcome of the trial remains uncertain. But one thing certainly isn’t: This riveting drama is a must-see at Florida Rep.