There's no shortage of theater offerings in Nashville these days, so local companies are wise to do whatever they can to set themselves apart from the pack. And with its current production, Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, Studio Tenn has done just that, by presenting the tense legal drama in an actual courtroom at the historic Williamson County Courthouse in downtown Franklin.
Studio Tenn's ingenious setting limits the viewing audience to roughly 125 theatergoers. But what may cramp the company's ticket sales proves to be a boon for theatergoers, who benefit from the "you are there" atmosphere.
The play concerns the members of a jury, confined to a single room and charged with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. Director Matt Logan even arranges for a real judge — the honorable Russ Heldman, retired — to deliver the play's opening speech, consisting of an admonishment to the jurors about their duties and obligations in serving on the case.
Of course, Rose's opus is well-known, having been performed on stage and television and in the movies since 1954, and it's a time-proven crowd-pleaser, as the personalities of the jurors emerge while they deliberate and argue over the trial testimony. That leads to some hot-blooded and very personal confrontations, ultimately telling us more about the 12 jurors than about the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
It's a period piece, for sure, with 1950s references (Khrushchev, for example) and the cast's starched-white-shirt look. But it also features one of the finest collections of character actors ever assembled on a Middle Tennessee professional stage.
All players excel in Logan's sure-handed staging, which delivers high drama seasoned with comic ironies. But it's the biggest, brassiest players who command attention most, primarily Jeremy Childs and veteran stage/film/TV actor Conrad John Schuck. As the jurors most ready to throw the switch on the electric chair, their emphatic, booming voices heighten tensions — and entertain mightily.
Studio Tenn managing director Jake Speck — fresh off his recent appearances in ABC's new series Nashville (which also includes Childs) — makes his stage debut with the company as the infamous Juror No. 8, the man responsible for slyly directing his colleagues' discussions along more thoughtful lines. Eric Pasto-Crosby is also terrific in the tricky, understated role of Juror No. 4, a man with careful regard for the facts.
Also on board are the venerable Cecil Jones, the redoubtable Henry Haggard and several other focused performers with noteworthy credits, including Brandon Hirsch, Nate Eppler, Derek Whittaker, Chuck Long, Garris Wimmer and Corey Caldwell. Lane Wright is the courtroom guard.
It's terrific theater, and great reason to visit the ever-charming downtown Franklin. If you can find a ticket, go.