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As Long as We Remember...

October 27, 2006

"12 Angry Men" and 1 Woman

Roy Meachum

It's difficult to believe anyone alive who got past the sixth grade has not heard of Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men." The straight-from-Broadway production plays Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre through next week.

Since its 1954 debut on CBS' "Studio One," the play has been revived several time and made into a striking movie, starring Henry Fonda. Hold on. If you don't know Henry Fonda's name, maybe you've never encountered the recreation of life inside a jury room when the jury is sorely divided. And angry.

The spin comes from the presence of a single juror who believes, going in, that the accused is not guilty. At the end, as you might guess, Richard Thomas, in the part, has won unanimity. Legal experts tell us the probability of jury deliberations turning in the defendant's favor, given the circumstances, are roughly zilch to none. The odds are stacked against a single person converting all the others. A local store owner in downtown Frederick concedes they may be right, but she knows they're wrong.

Carol Balance's Bijoux may be Pushkin's favorite Market Street boutique. It's a must stop on the English pointer's daily promenade. Carol not only offers biscuits, she comes from behind the counter, gets down on the carpet, at boy-dog's eye level and carries on an intimate conversation that captures his fancy. She and I talk, coming and going.

When I mentioned Tuesday that "Twelve Angry Men" was on my agenda that night, her blue eyes perked up and she said delightedly: "That was me!"

At first I had no idea what she meant. Caught up in the excitement of her news, she had problems articulating; finally gasping: "I went through that."

In bits and pieces, snatches of conversation and gesturing, Carol spun out how she had lived, in real life, the events I was to see on the Hippodrome Theatre stage.

In Montgomery County some seven years ago, before she moved to Frederick, she had been summoned to Rockville jury duty; she was selected for a civil case. Seeking damages against her former employer, a young Filipina had brought a Frenchman to court. The allegations were that he had raped her repeatedly.

Carol was the sole woman on the jury; perhaps that was why something about the young woman's testimony struck home with her. She was alone. She faced a chorus of angry male voices shouting such things as: "She asked for it," and "She could have fought him off if she tried." It was 11-1 against giving the young woman a dime. She had sued for $2 million

Attractive enough to qualify for a flight attendant's job, back in the time when looks rated high on the hire list, Bijoux's owner has known her share of uninvited, unwelcome male attention. The facts of her own life made her attitude sympathetic initially; it hardened under the incessant barrage of chauvinism.

Carol's one of those human beings, generally female, who refuses to recant her principled convictions. As the expression goes, she stuck to her guns during a session, she said, typified by shouting. Men were in her face. She was in theirs. When they recognized she would not budge, they caved.

The Frederick shopkeeper figures two major factors worked in her favor. Eventually, the men accepted she was not about to switch sides; she blocked attempts to render their discussions into a "hung jury." One by one, sometimes with nasty commentary, her opponents threw in the towel. The last few came at a rush; she later discovered there was an important baseball game that night.

In "Twelve Angry Men," Richard Thomas, playing the jury's lone hold out, enjoyed the bonus of a football game that night. His character suffers insults and indignities, threatening violence that never really happens and pleas that everybody has better things to do. Doesn't he?

Juror Thomas contends with assault on his manhood and intelligence. Director Scott Ellis has assembled a marvelous cast; not a clinker in the group. And each not only plays but personifies his role. George Wendt carries the only face that's familiar. Everything about the evening was thoroughly believable and incendiary.

The Hippodrome Theatre's "Twelve Angry Men" crackles with energy, popping surprises along the way and, for youngsters, provides an invaluable lesson for how good television once was.

Richard Thomas, George Wendt and friends will stick around Baltimore until a week from Sunday. Only a severe, personal tragedy might be a valid reason for staying home. Reginald Rose's masterpiece absolutely must not be missed.

By the way, Carol was vindicated; after the verdict giving the plaintiff $200,000, the jury learned the Frenchman had been convicted of sexual assault in the criminal case.

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