‘Twelve Angry Jurors’ takes the stage

The Peter H. Luce Playreaders bring courtroom drama to the Vineyard Playhouse.

Jurors (Ellie Beth, Mike Adell, Gaston Vadasz, and Nora Nevin) take a vote on who among them finds the defendant guilty. — Photo by Maria Thibodeau

One by one, more than two dozen people walked onstage in front of the audience at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse last Thursday evening. It looked like the theater was about to set the record for the largest cast to ever grace their stage — this time for a performance of Twelve Angry Jurors. However, and as would have been the case with a real-life jury, the majority of the group were excused, leaving just 13 Peter H. Luce Playreaders to take their seats at a long table.

Twelve Angry Jurors is a non-gender-specific version of Twelve Angry Men, the basis of the classic 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda. The adapted version includes parts for women, but none of the dialogue — aside from the appropriate pronouns — was changed from the original.

The show, directed by Leslie J. Stark, represented a first outing at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse for the 20-year-old Peter H. Luce Playreaders, and it was an excellent choice for a staged reading. The drama (which was originally performed as a television play in 1954) requires very few theatrical elements in terms of sets and blocking, and the limited action could be easily executed without the aid of stage directions.

The gripping drama also gave the audience an opportunity to witness the talents of a number of the regular Playreaders. And with the play’s themes of racism, the flaws in our legal system, and the perils of misconceptions and prejudices, it was certainly a timely choice.

The play takes place entirely during the first (and only) day of jury deliberations in a homicide trial. Twelve very different men and women (the 13th role is the bailiff) make up the jury, yet all but one agree on a guilty verdict during the initial vote. The one dissenter then works at trying, not so much to sway the others, as to force them to discuss the evidence and make an informed and just decision in a case with a mandatory death sentence.

It’s a taut, emotional and inspiring story that holds its own against the great cinema courtroom dramas — ones that actually take place in the courtroom and include a cast of more than just a sequestered jury. We get a true backward glance at the trial itself, and an inside look at how a defendant’s fate may hang on the whims and prejudices of a jury of his “peers.”

For many in the audience, this was a first glimpse of what the Peter H. Luce Playreaders have been doing weekly for the past two decades. The group is named after one of the early members, who ran the show for many years, selecting the plays, casting, and directing. Since Mr. Luce’s passing, the group has become more of a democracy, with the various duties shared by the members.

Every Wednesday from 9 am to 12 noon, the Playreaders gather at the Tisbury Senior Center to present a reading. The choices range from Greek tragedies to Shakespeare, to the classics of the theater, to cutting-edge contemporary material.

The Wednesday performances represent the first time that the actors have read the script as a unit, but there’s always a lot of preparation prior to the public reading.

Actor and director Leslie J. Stark and his wife Myra were offered the helm when Mr. Luce passed away many years ago. However, Mr. Stark turned down the position, opting for a more inclusive approach. Every two months, two members are designated as “producers,” and select the themes and appoint directors. The directors pick the plays, do the casting, and research the material so they can offer an informative introduction to the play. The cast has one week to prepare for their roles. After the readings, the group discusses the material.

The readings offer much more than just entertainment. It’s an opportunity for the members to acquaint themselves with a variety of plays and learn more about the theater. “The group’s dynamic is such that the members have become much more knowledgeable,” says Mr. Stark; “they tend to read plays on their own and go the theater — here or off-Island — whenever possible.”

The core members number about 25 in the off-season, increasing to around 35 in the summer. Newcomers are always welcome, either to stop in at any time or to become more involved. “We have an unofficial rule,” says Mr. Stark; “if you come three times, at the end of your third visit someone’s going to hand you a script and offer you a chance to read.”

Among the members are a few professional actors. Mr. Stark himself has a long history working in the theater. Before moving to the Vineyard, he worked full-time as an actor and director in regional, summer stock and off-Broadway productions. On-Island, Mr. Stark is well-known for his involvement with a variety of theater groups, including the Vineyard Playhouse, the Island Theater Workshop (ITW), and Shakespeare for the Masses. By his own estimation, Mr. Stark has performed in, and/or directed, 50 productions on-Island.

Mr. Stark can next be seen in a series of play readings at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern on Tuesday, March 17. His next outing as director will be with ITW’s Short Play festival at the end of March.

The Playreaders have performed at three of the local libraries, the Featherstone Center for the Arts, the Chilmark Community Center, and the Federated Church of Edgartown. Last week’s performance at the Playhouse was very well received by a captivated audience that filled a majority of the theater.

On Wednesday March 18, the Peter H. Luce Playreaders will kick off a month of Edward Albee plays with two short plays Zoo Story and The Sandbox directed by Myra Stark. Readings are weekly from 9 am to 12 pm noon at the Tilbury Senior Center. All are welcome. Free.