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Theater Review: ‘Jurors’ tough, rewarding at Pennsylvania Playhouse

Somebody heard the teenager threaten to kill the victim. Someone else, through an open window, saw him stab the victim. A witness heard the victim’s body thump on the apartment floor above and saw the teen running from the scene. The suspect had a reputation for being a knife-man and the victim was killed with a knife. He’s guilty of murder in the first degree, right? Deserves a death sentence, right?

Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Jurors,” weekends through June 20, The Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem, tells the story of 12 jurors as they struggle in a hot, sweltering jury room to overcome racial and ethnic prejudices, hatred, preconceptions and specious reasoning to come to a verdict with which almost no one is happy.

Some are in a hurry to meet commitments such as a ballgame that night. The evidence is clear, so let’s get this over with.

Another brings his own rotten upbringing and sadism to the jury room and seems to delight at the idea of sending a kid to death row. Others have their own issues.

Gary Boyer (Jury Foreman) tries to exercise his authority, but fails to keep the jurors dignified and on track. But he can’t contain their passions or correct their faults.

Shaun Hayes’s (Juror 3) character is always sure of his opinion at the top of his voice and bullies the others to quickly fall in line with a guilty verdict. Hayes brings a great sense of realism onto the stage with his outrage and barely contained violence.

Dara Connelly (Juror 8), demonstrating moral courage, becomes Juror 3’s opposite pole that sets up a magnetic tension. Determining which pole can exert the greatest attraction on the lesser characters becomes the main plot.

Connelly and Hayes are strong characters. Connelly is quietly brave and convincing, a seeker of justice, while Hayes is all belligerence and bluster. Each is superb.

Standing out with her stylish wardrobe and imperial looks, Renata Zumberge (Juror 4), shines as the reasonable one who starts others thinking about the evidence. Zumberge has a presence on the stage that suggests a patrician upbringing and noble fair-mindedness.

Gabe Craig (Juror 5) captures the essence of a young man not sure of himself when confronting the opinions of his elders. His second-hand expertise in knife-fighting seems to influence the others. “You don’t handle a switch knife that way. You use it underhanded.”

Parker Ryan (Juror 7) owns the self-confident, man-in-a-hurry character. He shows little patience with anyone who changes his or her mind, mainly because it keeps him from getting on with important things.

As a vaguely accented, older European immigrant, Denise Shelton (Juror 11) lends gravitas with her plaintive request that the others respect human dignity.

Her opposite number is Trish Steele (Juror 10), who convincingly sees the world through her racist lens: “I don’t understand you people. How can you believe this kid is innocent?” Steele’s performance is both banal and jarringly realistic.

A staple in any contentious group is the weak, easily-persuaded person who is convinced by the last speaker. Jillian McLuhan (Juror 2) convinces in this role. She masters the indecisive look and flexible opinion.

Susan Matol (Juror 12), is calculating in her assessment of the situation. Her jaded salesman’s persona seems to govern her character. “It seems to me that it’s up to us to convince this [Juror 8) that we’re right and she’s wrong.”

Providing texture, John Corl (Juror 9) is believable as an older man who seems too tired to contribute, but puts an early ugly face on those eager to convict. “What a terrible thing for a man to believe! Since when is dishonesty a group characteristic” He sums up Shaun Hayes’ (Juror 3) blood lust: “This man is dangerous.”

Michael Sheridan (Guard and Clerk) gives the guard a detached, polite, but no-nonsense approach.

Though an off-stage presence, Gene Connelly’s (Judge) strong, authoritative voice is a key element in the dialog. “It now becomes your duty to try to separate the facts from the fancy.”

Costume designer Todd Burkel captures the 1950s era perfectly, a time when women wore pillbox hats and men wore seersucker suits and bow-ties.

Kristen Wettstein and Brett Oliveira share credit as lighting designers. They capture a sense of swelter and being locked-in perfectly. Oliveira also designed the simple, austere set featuring courthouse furniture that has seen much service.

Marian Barshinger turns in a great success as the director of “12 Angry Jurors.”

Tickets: http://www.paplayhouse.org/; 610-865-6665