The Ostrander Awards executive committee needs to create a new category for set designer Jack Yates: Best Performance by an Onstage Bathroom. Last season, I witnessed an audience member walking across a realistic set into fake facilities Yates built for Rasheeda Speaking. Then last Sunday morning, I awoke to similar stories in my social media feed from Theatre Memphis' sturdy, star-studded production of 12 Angry Jurors. As was the case with Rasheeda, Yates has developed an immersive space, placing the audience in an environment that's as familiar as it is convincing — at least if you need to pee badly enough. But we're not here to talk toilets, are we?
Though its fierce, searching speeches feel by-the-numbers in ways that expose Jurors' roots as an Eisenhower-era tele-play, Reginald Rose's script is frustratingly current in its depiction of prejudice in the American legal system. It tells the story of a murder trial that might have ended in an easy guilty verdict if not for the persistence of one skeptical juror who defied peer pressure and outright threats because a man's life was at stake. Director John Rone's cast is a Who's Who of Memphis Theater with Kim Justis, Bennett Wood, Pamela Poletti, Christina Wellford Scott, and Jim and Jo Lynne Palmer in key roles — and that's just the first half-dozen. It's a dream team, and every player's at least as convincing as Yates' crapper. It's a rare and serious treat to see so many generations of talent working together on a classic. Catch it if you can.
12 Angry Jurors at Theatre Memphis through October 1st
- 12 Angry Jurors
Maybe I have a weird sense of beauty, but I've got to confess, I got a little choked up when I pulled right up to the door of 7 N. Main on my bike and looked into the brightly lit space. When those lights finally went down on Quark's production of Years to the Day, I knew anybody walking by outside could look in and watch the show, too. They could watch the audience watching the show. Everything was so minimal, so open, immediate, inviting and accessible. It was something to see without being remotely extravagant.
Tony Isbell directs Adam Remsen and David Hammons in Allen Barton's play about two middle-aged white guys sitting around talking that's way more engaging than that sounds. Dan (Remsen) and Jeff (Hammons) are old college buddies who've grown apart and, prior to the awkward coffee date we witness, haven't made time to hang out in four years. The ensuing conversation touches on all the things one might expect from a couple of 40-something guys hanging out talking — the latest film, health, aging, sex, kids, divorce, the grim specter of death on the horizon, etc. Jeff's gay now. Dan nearly died of a heart attack in the parking lot of a discount store. There's some catching up to do, and it's not easy.
Dan's such a conservative ranter and despiser of all things "nanny state," it's hard to imagine at times how these two men were ever friends. But the magic of Years to the Day is rooted in a slow-burning revelation that shared personal history creates needs that outweigh cultural values.
The story is set in a familiar world with an alternative history, so familiar situations are presented without the usual cultural/political baggage. This nearly trigger-free environment lets us watch debates without becoming a part of them — to see the dynamics of argument, not the merits of an argument. It's a nifty, hypnotic writing trick, though it can also feel a little gimmicky at times.
If watching two strong, unaffected actors ruthlessly going for it in a tight, high-stakes game of middle-stakes Life sounds like your idea of a good time, Years to the Day delivers.
I'm not sure what else I can say about this show without spoiling punchlines that sometimes land like actual punches. Clocking in at under 80 minutes, it's not a huge time investment either, leaving plenty of time to enjoy life on the riverfront.
Quark's Years to the Day at 7 N. Main through September 29th